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The first time Santa Claus came to San Luis Obispo

Santa Claus appeared in Max Pepperman’s advertisement in The Tribune on Dec. 15, 1874.
Santa Claus appeared in Max Pepperman’s advertisement in The Tribune on Dec. 15, 1874. TRIBUNE ARCHIVES

When did Santa Claus first visit San Luis Obispo?

The most relevant document I can find indicates December 1874. But first, a little background.

According to the History channel website:

A monk, born near Myra — now in Turkey — in about A.D. 280 was sainted for his good deeds. St. Nicholas became known as a protector of children and sailors. By the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe, especially Holland, and his feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, Dec. 6.

Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister wrote a poem for his three daughters, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” published first in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. Most people call it by the first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The imagery captured imaginations of “right jolly old elf” and named eight reindeer.

Why eight flying reindeer? They could be a blending of a pagan myth. Norse mythology features Odin bearing gifts while flying his eight-legged white horse Sleipnir at the Winter Solstice.

The Dutch settlements in America, such as New York, were fertile ground for the tradition of Santa Claus to take root.

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew what we would recognize as Santa Claus in 1881 for Harper’s Weekly. Eva Ulz, curator and director of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, notes that Nast drew previous versions of Claus as far back as 1864 when Father Christmas was negotiating a Civil War truce between North and South.

A reindeer flight across the country in 1873 to San Luis Obispo would have found children who had never seen Santa Claus.

At the time, Max Pepperman advertised 22 years of experience in the jewelry business. He also sold watches, clocks, sewing machines and spectacles at his Curiosity Shop. Pepperman knew good advertising should tell a story and catch the eye.

In Dec. 20, 1873, he advertised in The Tribune: “Max. Pepperman Having dissolved his connection with the far-famed Santa Claus, and started on his own account, at his old stand, Monterey Street, San Luis Obispo, and having lately visited by himself and agents, the principal marts of trade, is now enabled to offer for sale an entirely new supply of goods in his line of business …”

The graphic was an empty square, surrounded by dotted lines with the note, “This space will be filled next week.”

The following year on Nov. 28, 1874, under “New Advertisements,” Pepperman provided a drawing of his former business partner, Mr. Claus. This is the first image I have found of Santa Claus in San Luis Obispo.

A jolly man with a clay pipe, slouch hat, wide belt and boots is about to go down the chimney with a sack of toys, two reindeer and sleigh parked on the roof. The drawing is not refined. The face is bearded and smiling but square and similar to stereotypical drawings of Irishmen from that era. He is stocky but not rotund. A mandolin and dolls are spilling out of the sack.

In the rhyming copy, Pepperman reveals his sense of humor: “Watches at least twice a day are right.”

The engraving was durable, serving for many years in Pepperman’s Tribune advertising columns. The engraving even outlived the person who commissioned it. Born in Ostrow, Prussia, Pepperman died July 2, 1879, at 43 and is buried with many Jewish pioneer settlers in the Beth David section of the San Luis Obispo cemetery.

Santa continued on however.

The same engraving shows up with a holiday ad in The Tribune for Goodrich & Throop’s in November 1879. The Dec. 15, 1906, Morning Tribune front page features another Santa Claus driving a new fangled automobile, delivering presents to Hill’s Bazaar. Economy Drug Store pressed Santa Claus into service, ditching the stocking cap for an army field hat as he salutes during World War II in the Dec. 11, 1941, Telegram-Tribune.

Santa Claus became a staple of advertisers. Coca-Cola featured him in advertising in the 1930s. Now he’s everywhere, from animated television specials to movies and shopping malls.

But it was Prussian jeweler, Max Pepperman, who first brought Santa Claus, streaking across the night sky ahead of the Norse God Odin, to San Luis Obispo.