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The Santa figure the public came to know and love was born, in part, here in Tucson

When Santa needed to escape the North Pole's cold and snow, Haddon Sundblom wintered in Tucson and became friends with the Westward Look resort's owner, Robert M. Nason.

Haddon Hubbard Sundblom established our image of Santa Claus in his famous series of Coca-Cola Christmas advertisements. He produced these paintings during our nation's most troubled times, the Great Depression and World War II, when all the world needed hope, joy and Santa Claus. From 1931 to 1966, Sundblom created 40 Santa Claus paintings for Coca-Cola. Just how much the people cared about his Santa Claus became evident when a printing mistake reversed Santa's belt buckle in one painting. Thousands of letters poured in to Coca-Cola pointing out the error.

Sundblom used the Nason children, Lani and Sancy, as models for the children in many of his paintings of Santa Claus. They appeared in 1963 in "The Pause That Refreshes." Sancy cuddles up to Santa Claus while Lani serves him—what else—a Coca-Cola. By 1964, Santa Claus appeared with the children on his lap and at his knee while enjoying a new puppy and a Coca-Cola. Still, we are reminded that Santa Claus has many more stops to make in "Things Go Better With Coke."

Sundblom, the youngest of 10 children of Swedish immigrants, was born in Muskegon, Mich., on June 22, 1899. He lost both parents at an early age. After his mother died, the 13-year-old Sundblom dropped out of school and set out to make his fortune. He hitchhiked to Chicago, where for seven years, he worked on construction jobs during the day, and studied at night at the Art Institute of Chicago, with the intention of becoming an architect. During a construction layoff in 1925, he got a job as an illustrator with the prestigious Charles Everett Johnson Studios. A year later, Sundblom and two colleagues, Howard Stevens and Edwin Henry, formed their own advertising agency. Many of the nation's top illustrators got their start in Sundblom's studio, and did a variety of work to sustain themselves while learning their craft. The studio artists included a plumbing contractor, a politician, a millinery tycoon, a policeman, a boxer, a world-champion pistol shot and two ministers. Sundblom would later claim that through a spirit of good will, they inspired each other.

Sundblom's talent for themes and artistry soon brought him clients such as Cream of Wheat, Nabisco Shredded Wheat cereals, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Maxwell House coffee, Cashmere Bouquet and Camay soaps, and Gerber baby food. Sundblom's face can still be seen on Quaker oatmeal boxes, and he produced the Gerber baby. He also produced posters for the U.S. Marines and advertisements for Ford, Packard, Lincoln, Buick and Pierce-Arrow. His illustrated stories appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping. During the peak of his professional career, Sundblom produced more than half of the Coca-Cola billboard art.

Sundblom was not a fan of the scrawny Santa Clauses wearing cheap costumes in the department stores. Sundblom provided his Santa Claus with what we have come to consider the traditional Santa uniform: a cap; a long, red coat trimmed with white fur; red trousers; high black boots; and a leather belt with a massive brass buckle that girds a "little round belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly": He brought to life the words of Clement C. Moore's poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Santa Claus, like Sundblom, was a big, expansive and ebullient man, sometimes stealing a drumstick out of the refrigerator. And, of course, he drank Coca-Cola. Santa would leave an extra orange or two in the socks "hung by the chimney with care" if you left him a Coke.

When Sundblom was faced with the problem of finding another Santa model, a friend suggested that he look in the mirror. One morning while shaving, he looked at his lathered Swedish face and saw that the years had matured it into a perfect Santa Claus.

In 1931, Sundblom painted a full-length Santa Claus that became the first in a long series of Coca-Cola cutouts. In "They Remembered Me," Santa is grateful to a family for leaving him a bottle of Coca-Cola. Even though he has tracked "new-fallen snow" into the living room, one senses that the family is more than happy for his visit.

During World War II, Santa Claus carried war bonds in his sack of gifts, and he toasted American soldiers with a Coke. The year 1943 was the only time Sundblom made a political statement. He posed Santa Claus next to a globe with a caption that read, "Here's to our GI Joes."

In 1948, Santa appears with the Sprite boy, who wears a Coca-Cola hat. Santa takes a long drink of Coca-Cola in "Travel Refreshed" while the Sprite boy holds the reins to the tiny reindeer and looks out mischievously at the viewer with wonderful twinkling eyes. The Sprite boy originally appeared in 1942, and was used in correspondence and advertisements to remind people that Coke and Coca-Cola were trademarks. By the 1960s, televisions were in almost every home, and magazines began to use more photography. Illustration was fast becoming an obsolete career.

Haddon Sundblom created his last two Santa Claus paintings for Coca-Cola in 1964. The last one was used in 1966. The whereabouts of the 1966 painting is a mystery. Sundblom pursued his art career in semiretirement until his death in March 1976.

The world is a richer place for having known Haddon Sundblom's artistry. He helped us believe that Santa Claus is a human who carries out the work and spirit of the child's birthday we celebrate on Dec. 25.