A Look Back To the First Department Store Santa

department store Santa
Photo: Mike Arney / Unsplash

Department store Santas are a staple during the holiday season. Where did this tradition start, though? Who was the first department store Santa?

The first department store Santa appeared in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1890. This beloved tradition was started by a dry goods store owner and Scottish immigrant named James Edgar (also known as “Colonel Jim”).

Edgar once said that he never understood why Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. He explained, “He is so far away… only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.”

Edgar had a history of dressing up in his store to make his customers happy. He even dressed as a clown on a regular basis. Eventually, he decided to take things up a notch and dress up as Santa, inspired by illustrations from issues of Harper’s Weekly magazine from the 1860s.

Christmas Eve, 1862 (from “Harper’s Weekly”) – January 3, 1863 – Thomas Nast

In hopes of giving children a special Christmas surprise that year, Edgar took it upon himself to travel to Boston by train and purchase a specially tailored Santa costume. He went on to present himself as Santa a few weeks before Christmas that year.

To say his costume was a hit would be an understatement.

One man who experienced Edgar’s portrayal of Santa firsthand said about the experience, “I remember walking down an aisle, and all of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”

As news spread of Santa hanging out in Edgar’s store, children started traveling from places like Boston, Providence, Worcester, and even New York to see jolly old St. Nick for themselves.

After seeing the success of Edgar’s endeavor, several other department stores followed suit. By the next year, Santas started showing up in several major department stores. At the turn of the century, it became practically a requirement for every department store in the country to have a Santa when the holidays rolled around.

Children visiting Santa Claus, Eaton’s department store, St. Catherine Street, Montreal, Canada, 1941 – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When Edgar introduced the presence of Santa in department stores, he obviously had (and continues to have) a positive influence on the stores’ ability to attract more customers and make more sales. He also inspired others to perform acts of service around the Christmas season.

A great example of this inspiration took place in the 1920s, 11 years after Edgar’s passing, when the city of Brockton fell on hard times.

At this time, Charles Brooks, a truant officer for the city, learned that hundreds of children were missing school because their families couldn’t buy them new shoes or repair their old ones. He told the president of Edgar’s store, William Wright, about the situation and encouraged Wright to do “what the late James Edgar would have done.”

Wright proceeded to close down the store’s top floor and turn it into the James Edgar Shoe Shop. He then purchased a $3,000 shoe-repairing machine and hired a half-dozen cobblers, who repaired more than 1,000 pairs of shoes (for free) by Christmas and 5,000 pairs by the spring.

James Edgar certainly had a positive influence on the people of Brockton, Massachusetts, even after he passed away. His legacy continues to live on today in department stores throughout the world.