“Merry Christmas to all – and to all who drive by!”

Santa Through the Ages (1880 – 1920)


Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863), author, McLoughlin Brothers (1828 – 1920), publisher, The Night Before Christmas or A Visit of St. Nicholas, 1888, printed text and ink on paper, 12 x 10 inches, The W.H. Stark House, Orange, Texas, OD.2013.81.

Santa Claus is a Christmas classic and a staple in American holiday celebrations. Santa as we know him today is a combination of dozens, if not hundreds, of traditions, legends, and historical figures from around the world. The W.H. Stark House is excited to present Santa Through the Ages. This exterior display features images of Santa from the House collection spanning 40 years, from 1888 – 1918. During these years, the concept and look of the Santa Claus we know today rapidly evolved in America. The first image is from the cover of an 1888, illustrated copy of the classic Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” It is now known more commonly as “The Night Before Christmas.” 


Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863), author, McLoughlin Brothers (1828 – 1920), publisher, The Night Before Christmas or A Visit of St. Nicholas, 1888, printed text and ink on paper, 12 x 10 inches, The W.H. Stark House, Orange, Texas, OD.2013.81.

“The Night Before Christmas” is one of the most important poems in American history. It is the foundational document of the American Santa. The story has also been adapted, reinterpreted, and used by people and cultures from around the world. In 1823, it was published in a local paper in the town of Troy, New York by an anonymous author. Years later, poet Clement Clarke Moore eventually took credit but many today believe Henry Livingston Jr. was actually the original author. The poem is largely based off of old Dutch-American legends from the New York area, with reindeer being the most famous element. The poem also introduces new ideas like Santa visiting households on Christmas Eve. It became extremely popular and many artists began making illustrated versions of the story. The W.H. Stark House has three of them. This image is a scene taken from the 1888 version, illustrating the line “down the chimney St. Nicholas came.” The poem created the basic character of Santa Claus, but illustrators told us what he looked like.


E. Lecky, author, Emily J. Harding (1877 – 1902), artist, Raphael Tuck & Sons (1866 – 1959), A Letter from Old Father Christmas, c. 1890, chromolithographs on paper with metal staple binding, 9 7/8 x 6 3/4 x 1/8 inches, The W.H. Stark House, Orange, Texas, OD.2013.79.

The name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch traditions of Sinterklaas. But this is not the only source of inspiration for the American Santa. The British Father Christmas is also an influence. This character was originally more associated with Christmas celebrations for adults and was not a gift giver. He appears quite famously as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. However, in the Victorian Age, he began to develop more associations as a gift giver for children. Depictions range widely, with everything from a fat and happy “Bacchus-like” character to a solemn, slender wizard. This Christmas card from 1890 was sent to Lutcher Stark when he was three or four. It features a dignified, older Father Christmas carrying toys for children.


Frey, Charles D., Holiday Number, Orange Leader, December 18, 1908, Eunice R. Benckenstein Library and Archive, Orange, Texas.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of marketing and advertising on Santa Claus. In fact, the bright and colorful Santa ads made during the Holidays are now one of the major sources for Santa traditions. This is a full page, color illustration of Santa driving a car full of toys. It was made for a special Christmas edition of the Orange Leader in 1908. It is essentially selling Orange. Santa is racing down the streets toward a prosperous future. It is also a great way for the Orange Leader to sell more papers since festive issues were often collected each year. In custom, local ads such as this, Santa was adapted and embraced by communities across the nation.


Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863), author, Henry Altemus Company (1842 1936), publisher, The Night Before Christmas, 1918, printed text and ink on paper, 5 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 1/4 inches, The W.H. Stark House, Orange, Texas, OD.2013.75.

Technology played a huge role in making Santa available for everyone. Illustrations, especially in color, were very expensive in the 1800s. They were either complicated block prints or hand colored. In the early 1900s, new printing methods made this process much cheaper. One of them was pointillism, making an image out of lots of little dots. This 1918 illustrated edition of “The Night Before Christmas” uses the pointillism technique. Cheaper printing meant that more people could afford books with images. New technology allowed for more posters, more ads, and just more Santas. It’s also clear how much the look of Santa refined between 1888 and 1918. The later Santa looks similar to the ones we see today – a jolly, round figure with a white beard and simple red suit. Over one hundred years later this basic image continues to be used and reused every year. But far from being stagnant, Santa continues to adapt and change in ways that reflect current trends, keeping the magic alive and fresh each Christmas.

Past Exhibits

Living Legacy

Get active and give back! Discover the many ways the W.H. Stark family was active and involved in their community in the new exhibit in the adjacent Carriage House, Living Legacy. Featuring many touching stories of how the W.H. Stark family helped those in their community and never before exhibited objects from the Collection of The W.H. Stark House, Living Legacy will inspire you to get involved.

Share your stories of community service by posting to our Padlet wall at padlet.com/whstarkhouse/livinglegacy

Preserving the Past

An exhibit at The W.H. Stark House on view March 29, 2016 through March 11, 2017, Preserving the Past, celebrates caring for the past by preserving family treasures. The Tower Room on the third floor of the Stark House is used as the exhibit space, and features a hands-on interactive area. The exhibit is the last stop on the regular tour, giving visitors a special experience in the historic setting.

The exhibit space is divided into two areas covering four themes: textiles, books, papers and photographs, and glass and ceramics, and this space gives visitors the opportunity to look out from the turret area, which boasts a 180 degree view of downtown Orange, Texas.

This thematic exhibition explores how the Stark House collection came to be, with stories of the W.H. Stark family’s love of collecting and moments from their everyday lives. Rarely seen objects from the collection have been pulled from storage to be displayed in this special exhibit. Preserving the Past also encourages visitors to preserve their own past with information and resources about caring for family treasures.

To Have and To Hold

A new exhibition at The W.H. Stark House, To Have and To Hold, celebrates the classic love story of Miriam Lutcher and W.H. Stark. The Tower Room of the Stark House is used as the exhibit space, with an interactive area in the turret. The exhibition is the last stop on the regular tour, giving visitors an extraordinary experience in the historic setting.

This thematic exhibition explores weddings and anniversaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s using the experiences of the W.H. Stark family. From their December 1881 wedding to their 1931 golden anniversary party, the exhibition features rarely displayed objects from the Stark House collection and historic photographs and documents. Highlighted in the exhibition center is Miriam Lutcher Stark’s lace Wedding Dress. To Have and To Hold offers visitors a never-before-seen 360 degree view of this spectacular object.

On view from Saturday, December 5, 2015 through Saturday, March 5, 2016.