I learned two years ago that my great granduncle used to answer Santa's mail. For decades, letters that kids addressed to Santa Claus went to the post office's Dead Letter Office where they were eventually destroyed. But in 1913, my grandma's uncle -- an eccentric publicist and Christmas enthusiast named John Duvall Gluck Jr. -- approached the New York City postmaster with an idea of how to answer these wishes. Thus was launched The Santa Claus Association.
The group worked like an early version of crowd sourcing, with a donor taking one or 100 letters and personally delivering the child's Christmas wish -- whether a toy, food, or in at least one case, an artificial limb. It required little bureaucratic overhead beyond promoting the group's work and routing the letters to willing donors. By the end of its first year, the Santa Claus Association had answered 28,000 letters and the New York Times dubbed it a "revolution in methods of distributing charity."
The group ran for another 14 years, gaining support from the biggest stars and political leaders of the time, and working from high-profile headquarters like the Woolworth and Knickerbocker Buildings. But the group's lack of oversight eventually ran them into trouble with city officials. In 1928, Gluck's fundraising practices came under scrutiny and the organization was forced to close up operations, never to be heard from again.
I pieced together this history through hours spent in the New York Public Library archives and digging into city records. But the most interesting bits came from tracking down family members I never knew I had. With the help of a genealogy investigator, and many phone calls and letters, I got in contact with the widow of Gluck's nephew, who uncovered from her storage a 50-pound box of scrapbooks, photos, and old Santa letters that Gluck had saved.
These findings are on display at the City Reliquary museum in Williamsburg, as part of the "Santa Claus Association" exhibit I am curating. The show tells the story of the association and includes all kinds of amazing memorabilia, and will be on display through February 10 (more info here).
But if you aren't able to make it, or just want to get into the holiday spirit, here is a sampling of the letters the group received, some heartbreaking, some humorous.