24 November 2006

The Invention of Santa Claus

In the late 1800s, factory output soared. Suddenly, factory owners no longer limited by how much they could make were limited instead by how much they could sell. Capitalists had learned to rapidly make products; in order for this new economy to work, consumers had to learn how to rapidly consume them.

One key to this was retail. Department stores emerged about this time – Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Macy’s in New York were doing business during the Civil War. But the success of consumerism depended on two fascinating social inventions that helped make the new retailers successful: window displays and Santa Claus.

Advertising was not new to this period. But a particular form of it was. Department stores had to stimulate interest and one way that was done was through store window displays. In the late 1800s, it was considered rude to stare into windows, so stores hired professional gawkers whose job it was to stare into store display windows and induce others to do the same. A pioneer in store window displays was L. Frank Baum (1856 to 1919) – better known as the author of The Wizard of Oz (1900). Both his books and displays invited observers into a magical world that promised delight.

The second social invention has become as ubiquitous: Santa Claus as we know him was an invention that helped to transform this period of mass production into one of mass consumption. It is no coincidence that Christmas gift giving emerged from this period. “In 1867, Macy’s department store remained open until midnight Christmas Eve, setting a one-day record of $6,000 in receipts.” Around 1870, Christmas made “December retail sales more than twice those of any other month.”[1] Santa Claus and window displays were simply forms of a new and important activity – marketing - changing people's minds about what they considered normal purchases.

In the words of children, what did Santa Claus bring us? By 1870, the United States had the largest economy in the world. “For the first time in history, even ordinary folks could aspire to ownership of those hard goods – watches, clocks, bicycles, telephones, radios, domestic machines, above all the automobile – that were seen in traditional societies as the appropriate privilege of the few. All of this was facilitated in turn by innovations in marketing ... Mass consumption made mass production feasible and profitable; and vice versa.[2]

Merry Christmas and Happy Shopping.

[1] James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986) 260.
[2] David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor (New York: Norton, 1999) 307.

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