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The Santa Claus Man

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The Con Man Who Saved Christmas

Posted on December 23, 2015

For BBC History Magazine's History Extra, I told the story of John Gluck and the Santa Claus Association.

Every year throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as certain as snowflakes fell onto the city streets, a growing mountain of Santa letters ended up at post offices across America. Thanks to a change in Post Office Department policy in 1911, these letters began to be answered by charity groups approved by the local postmaster. But in New York City, the largest city in the country, Santa was nowhere to be found.

“Santa Claus is Tardy Saint,” read the front page of The Sun a week before Christmas Eve. “Mail Men Disown Santa,” read the Tribune. Two years went by with New York City’s Santa letters ending up at the dead letter office [a facility within a postal system where undeliverable mail is dealt with], and as the days of December 1913 ticked away, it began to look like Santa would again be a no-show.

But on 8 December, New York City’s postmaster, Edward M Morgan, received a call about a clever customs broker with a carefully conceived system for receiving, verifying and responding to children’s Christmas wishes. Despite the postmaster’s workload in the midst of the holiday season – or perhaps because he had too much on his mind to take extra time vetting the one man who had stepped forward to play Santa – Morgan quickly granted the man’s request. New York City now had a Santa Claus, the newspapers joyfully reported. However, it would turn out that the city had got more than it bargained for.

The customs broker-turned-Santa was John Duval Gluck, Jr – a bachelor with no children of his own. While Gluck’s imagination and abundant energy added a sense of fancy to his day-to-day life, it also created restlessness in him and a hunger to do something greater with his life. He read about the change in the US Post Office Department policy, and believed his fundraising background – and work investigating customs claims – provided him with the unique skills to effectively manage Santa’s mail.

Gluck’s idea, the Santa Claus Association, worked strictly as a bottom-up operation. New Yorkers of any means could take a letter – or 100 of them if they liked – and personally see that the child received his or her gift. The donors (and the children hopeful enough to write to Santa in the first place), did the real work. Gluck’s association just helped to connect them. From the association’s office in the back of a Manhattan steakhouse, Gluck told reporters that this approach ensured the city’s generosity “is flung wide with a generous hand, rather than doled out with the smugness of self-satisfied benevolence”.

Read the full story at History Extra.

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