James Edgar, the Pioneering Department Store Santa
Edward Pearson was in his 90s when he told a newspaper reporter about the most magical day of his childhood.
“As long as I live,” he said, “and I’ve lived quite a few years, I’ll never forget that experience.”
It was December 1890, and a young Pearson was wandering the aisles of the Boston Store, an upscale department store in Brockton, Massachusetts, when he turned a corner and saw a portly man with a white beard and a red suit.
“All of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.” The man smiled and approached Pearson. Like most kids, Pearson had only seen interpretations of Santa in magazine illustrations, never in the flesh. But here, in a department store in a small town near Boston, was the man himself.
In reality, Santa was James Edgar, the owner of the Boston Store and a man who bore a resemblance to the holiday icon long before he ever asked a tailor to fashion a costume for him. For the hundreds of kids who visited his store, Edgar became something their eyes could hardly believe: the first department store Santa.
Edgar was born in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland in 1843, arriving in the United States some 24 years later [PDF]. A big, jolly man who carried his generosity with him everywhere, Edgar opened the Boston Store—later renamed Edgar’s—in 1878 and promptly began to personify the holiday spirit.
While other area stores often had their workers staying late, Edgar closed his store four evenings a week so workers could be home with their families. If a customer wanted to put an item on layaway, he gave them four percent monthly interest on whatever amount they had deposited. If a child in the area was in need of medical attention and had no money, Edgar would make sure they got the help they needed. While he did it anonymously, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind it.
With one daughter of his own, Edgar loved kids. He hired trolleys to ferry thousands of them into a nearby grove for a Fourth of July picnic every year, where he enjoyed dressing up in costume for their amusement. He was Uncle Sam one year and a cricket player the next. He’d climb to the roof of his store and toss pennies into the crowd below.
For Christmas, Edgar originally donned a clown costume to spread cheer inside his store. He did this for years until, in 1890, the idea struck him to try his hand at portraying Santa, using the Thomas Nast illustrations of the character from 1860s issues of Harper’s magazine as inspiration. Edgar made his way into Boston, hired a tailor, and picked up his Santa suit.
“I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole,” he once said of his ambitions. “He is so far away. He is only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.”
To say children were awestruck would not be an exaggeration. Like Pearson, they had never conceived of meeting their mysterious benefactor face-to-face before. Lines began to spiral out of the store and around the block, surging when school was let out. Edgar had planned on being Santa for just an hour a day and three on Saturdays, but he eventually had to hire a second man to play Santa when the demand outstripped his energy.
The notion of a living Santa was so intriguing that Edgar’s store attracted visitors from as far away as New York and Rhode Island. By the following year, several other stores across the country had picked up on the idea, which helped bolster foot traffic and sales. Unlike many of his successors, however, Edgar never had a place to sit and idle. He roamed his store, actively seeking out children so they could confide in him.
By the time Edgar died in September 1909, the department store Santa had become a tradition. The owners of his namesake property also seemed determined to continue his philanthropy, devoting an entire floor to cobbling shoes for the poor during the 1920s.
Edgar was not the first man to put on a Santa costume: because of the character's many incarnations—from 4th century bishop to Coca-Cola advertising icon—that will forever be an issue of semantics. But he was the first documented department store Santa, and he arguably was the man who most closely resembled the character in terms of the good will he circulated. When he died, his funeral service was held in his second-floor apartment in Brockton. As soon as local schools let out for lunch, hundreds of children filed past his casket to pay their respects.
“Original Department Store Santa,” The Billings Gazette, December 1972 [PDF]; “Department Store Santas Owe Paychecks to Col. Jim Edgar,” Enterprise, Dec. 20, 1987 [PDF]; “The First Santa Claus,” Yankee, 1979 [PDF].