Santa Claus went viral this week because of its touching modesty: A box of paint, a school bag, and a bit of candy were the only requests on the list. And it got us wondering: How have Santa letters changed over the decades?
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According to the United States Post Office's Pete Fontana, "chief elf" of the national 101-year-old Letters to Santa department, messages to the North Pole have taken a sad turn in just the 16 years that he's overseen the program. "Now they have a more serious intent," Fontana tells Yahoo Shine. "People talk about how they're poor, are living on low incomes — some even send their tax returns to prove it."
That's because parents know the USPS program makes its letters available to the public, who can choose one to honor with generous gifts. "The biggest change is how many single moms are writing, making close to minimum wage, asking for the basics — clothing, even food," he says.
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It's actually reminiscent of letters from over a century ago. While the USPS only keeps its Santa letters for a year before shredding them, thousands of others, previously published in the "Dear Santa" pages of local newspapers across the country, are accessible on MyHeritage.com. And what's continually striking about the earliest lists is a lack of greed.
For example, in 1905, when less than 10 percent of U.S. households had electricity and the life expectancy was just 47 years, the biggest requests in letters published in the Constitution newspaper in Atlanta included apples, oranges, nuts, raisins, candy, a storybook, and even a Christmas tree.
"I want you to bring me some goodies and some toys but I don't want much for myself, but I want you to bring Uncle Si a good mule…," wrote one boy. "Please send Si a good mule. If you don't, bring me nothing."
Even at the start of an economic boom, children were mindful not to be greedy. "Will you please bring me a doll and a [thermal] bottle as I have to take my lunch to school every day. And I want a pair of woolen stockings and nuts and candy," wrote one girl that year in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune. Another girl asked for a sewing box, paints, one pencil, a storybook and a tree, noting, "I'm not going to ask for many things because the toys are real high this year."
Once the stock market crashed, kids actually dreamed a little bigger, with letters published in Texas's Wellington Leader in 1934 asking for footballs, dolls, and a tricycle, along with the requisite nuts, fruits and candies.
"Dear Old Santa," wrote one high-reaching child named Leroy McDaniels. "I'm a little boy who lives at Plymouth. I want you to bring me a new car, a cowboy suit, a gun, and some fancy house shoes. Please don't forget little Willa."
(Below, a 2013 Santa letter)
"Please bring me a large doll in a bridesmaid gown, a blackboard, colored chalk, a nice book bag, some games, and, dear Santa, I would like to have a permanent wave. Don't forget my brother and sister. Thank you," wrote third grader Barbara Lee Bassford in a 1947 issue of the Capital, published in Annapolis, Maryland. Hers was a great example of how kids started making their requests more specific.
That paper also had a letter from Julia Ann, who covered every member of her family: "Will you please come to my home? I would like to have an old-fashioned doll, a pair of slippers, and a pair of woolen stockings. Please bring my brother an electric train, a wagon, and a pop-gun. Please bring my mother a pair of nylons, a pop-up toaster, and a bottle of perfume. Please bring my father a box of cigars, a new suit, and a pair of slippers. Please bring my dogs some bones and a bottle of milk for my cat."
War toys seemed jarringly popular, with a boy named Max asking in 1957, in the Jefferson Bee in Iowa, for "a big set of old-time army men and some cannons with it and some games too. And for the fort men I want walls and some cabins too. I want a play train to and for the fort I want horses too…and Indians and teepees for the Indians."
Other requests: cowboy books, guns, a dump truck, bicycles, candy, dolls — even a puppy and a pony (from the same cheeky kid).
1960s and 1970s
Bicycles, blocks, and dolls (and "my two front teeth" from one 7-year-old girl) were asked for in letters from 1960 in the News Tribune of Fort Pierce, Florida. And then came the '70s, ushering in what seems to be the explosion of brand awareness. Specific toy requests in the Vidette-Messenger in Valparaiso, Indiana, in 1972 included a Baby Tender Love doll, an Easy-Bake Oven and a Kool-Aid Kooler — along with a tool set, a rock tumbler, paper dolls, a teddy bear, a cardboard playhouse, and "some farm machinery."
(Below, another 2013 letter):
1980s and 1990s
"Please bring me a pair of Chic pants and some games," read one to-the-point letter in the Seguin Gazette Enterprise, in Texas, in 1982. At the top of other lists, which read like a nostalgic time capsule, were: Atari, Strawberry Shortcake dolls, an E.T. toy, a BMX bike, and an "AM/FM cassette recorder." Also in Texas, letters in a 1994 issue of the Galveston Daily News requested ten-speed bikes, Super Nintendo, Power Rangers, and a "big boombox." And, from a girl named Candace Johnson who wanted it all: a Tiffany styling doll, Easy-Bake Oven, Katie Kiss 'n Giggles doll, a Skipper doll ("and her boyfriend and her sister's boyfriend") and some McDonald's.
It's not until the start of the 2000s that things start to sound familiar, with Xbox, Legos, a Gameboy, and Bratz dolls topping wish lists — making those apples, candies, and books seem more precious than ever.
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