Even Santa, it turns out, went better with Coke

Coke and a smile: Santa Claus is aglow with the holidays in this advertising art from 1962, which is on display at the Vigo County Historical Museum.Tribune-Star photo

What could go better with Christmas than Santa Claus and a Coca-Cola? The Exhibit Room on the first floor of the Vigo County Historical Museum has a display featuring several holiday-decorated Coca-Cola cups, bottles, ornaments and other items. 

An eye-catching part of the exhibit is a poster made from an oil-on-canvas work by illustrator Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976). The 1962 painting shows Santa Claus wearing a childlike expression of joy as he sits, Coke in hand, with an electric train and a helicopter hovering over it. Sundblom’s illustration shows Santa Claus as the embodiment of the Christmas spirit, enhanced, of course, with Coca-Cola. 

Born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1899, Sundblom went to Chicago at age 13. Originally Interested in becoming an architect, he decided to become an illustrator. After starting as an office boy with the Charles Everett Johnson Studios, he and two other employees started their own business in 1915. 

The young illustrator created advertising artwork for prestigious firms, including Maxwell House, Palmolive, Whitman chocolates and many auto manufacturers. Coca-Cola was among his clients, and he began work on its advertising campaign in 1926.  

From 1931 through 1964, Sundblom created the Coca-Cola Santa illustrations. So distinctive was his depiction of the Jolly Old Elf that he truly became Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus. Sundblom’s touches included adding lavish fur, lots of leather for belt, boots and gloves and billowing beard. In the illustrations, Santa always has a Coke in hand and wears the expression of one pleased with his mission.  Sundblom’s first model for Santa was his friend, Lou Prentice. After Prentice’s death, the 6’ 3’’ Sundblom became his own model. 

Christmas ad campaigns kept the artist busy all year round. The Santa poster had to be ready by spring for billboard advertisements. He created two or three Santa paintings every year to be used for magazine and point-of-sale ads as well as billboards. 

By the 1960s, television had become the focus of advertising campaigns. Magazines replaced illustrations with photography. The Highway Beautification Act under the Johnson administration limited billboard signs. When Sundblom created his last two Coca-Cola Santas in 1964, he was living in a changed advertising world. 

“Dream of Santa: Haddon Sundblom’s Advertising Paintings for Christmas, 1931-1964,” by Barbara Fahs Charles and J. R. Taylor, contains all of the illustrations the artist made as well as a brief description of each. In the artwork, Santa is always shown with a Coca-Cola as he poses with his reindeer, bag of toys, adorable children or electric train and helicopter.

Enjoy a pause that refreshes and visit the Vigo County Historical Museum exhibit of the Sundblom Santas and other Coca-Cola memorabilia. 

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