By Ken Zurski
In the 1930’s when soft drink giant Coca-Cola decided to celebrate the holiday season in their promotional ads, American aritst Haddon Sundblom created an image that still today is considered the definitive appearance of a modern day Santa Claus.
For Sundblom, achieving such lasting notoriety was not entirely unexpected. The popularity of Coca-Cola products made images that appeared in their ads cultural phenomenons. In 1930, when Coke introduced Christmas-themed ads, another artist named Fred Mizen did a painting that featured the world’s largest soda bar at the Famous Barr Co. in St Louis, Missouri. In it, Santa Claus is seen in the crowd drinking a Coke while children stand by his feet waiting to greet him.
The painting was colorful and festive enough, just not memorable. And the Santa in the painting really wasn’t Santa at all, but clearly a man dressed up as Santa, a familiar sight to shoppers all across the country.
The next year, Coca-Cola wanted to portray Santa as more wholesome and realistic. Sundblom was asked to give the image a go. Today the original Coca-Cola products where Sundblom’s Santa appears are as collectible as they are nostalgic.
Based on Clement Clark Moore’s descriptions of St. Nick in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Sundblom’s Santa Claus emphasized the rosy cheeks and snow white beard along with the now familiar red suit and hat. A wide leather belt and brown boots completed the look. Of course, Santa is seen holding a Coca-Cola bottle like in the previous ads, but this time his face looked jolly, and his beard real. Even the “little round belly” was believable.
Sundblom’s Santa, however, was merely improving on an image already made famous nearly a decade earlier by illustrator Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly.
Nast genius was presenting Santa as a human figure, rather than a mysterious one. Santa had the suit (albeit drab) and a beard, but little detail. Most of his drawings were in simple ink and later colorized for Christmas cards.
Based on Nast’s early designs. Sundblom polished Santa’s bright and festive look for the soft drink company.
Sundblom went on to have a successful career in advertising art. In the mid 1940’s, shortly after the Santa image appeared, he created a colorized version of the Quaker Oats man, an image which still exists today, although it’s look has since been modernized.
Santa Claus, however, is still considered Sundblom’s most enduring figure.
And a “figure,” so to speak, was Sundblom’s specialty.
That’s because before he became associated with the holidays, Sundblom’s contracted work was in pin-ups, which featured detailed drawings of scantily clad women for magazine pull-outs and calendars. Coca-Cola must have known this at the time, but few made the connection. Then in 1972 at the age of 73, in what turned out to be his last assignment, Sundblom paid homage to both worlds.
That year, he was asked to draw a picture for the cover of the Playboy Christmas issue.
Typical of his pin-up work, Sundblom’s model is seen playfully removing an article of clothing.
This time, it was a familiar red coat.