By Steve Carr
It’s the Holiday Season, a time for family, friends, and gift giving. I apologize for being a little late this week with my blog – I have just had too much fun.
In keeping with the season, this blog is about Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nick, one of the more recognizable symbols of the Christian Christmas season. I will show where the idea of Santa came from and how Santa’s popularity led to him being pictured on obsolete bank notes. These notes are perfect presents for any collector.
Today’s Santa Claus is a direct “descendant” of Saint Nicholas. Born 270 AD in Myra, which is now in Turkey, Saint Nicholas was a religious leader who apparently performed miracles. He was so popular with the people that he became the Patron Saint of sailors. merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students. He was especially kind to children and is best remembered for this, being also named a Patron Saint of children. He was honored throughout most of Europe.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation, Saint Nicholas had pretty much been forgotten in Europe. The Dutch, however, kept his legend alive. They called him Sint Nikolass and honored him with gift giving during the winter months.
But not everyone thought this was a good custom. The Puritans declared all Christmas celebrations, which grew from these Dutch festivities, illegal in New England during the 17th century. In Massachusetts, a law passed in 1659 actually punished those who celebrated Christmas with a five shilling fine.
Saint Nicholas and Christmas got a huge boost starting in 1823. In late December “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in New York City, which had originally been settled by the Dutch. Better known to us as ’The Night Before Christmas,’ this poem defines our current ideas about Santa Claus, his gift giving, his reindeer and sleigh, and the fact that he visits by coming down the chimney.
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” was so popular that by the 1850s just about everyone in America celebrated Christmas, even the Puritans, who had made the celebration illegal in the late 1600s. And Santa Claus became a nationwide icon, someone who gave to those in need (i.e. children).
At the same time, there was no Federal currency for use in commerce. Instead, individual banks issued notes, supported by the bank’s reserves. Some of these banks were well known and their notes readily accepted. But other banks were totally fake, with no actual bank in existence, just notes to con people out of their good money. Many banks were in-between. Their notes were known to be good and accepted locally. but the farther one traveled from the bank, the more it decreased in value.
Santa Claus was the perfect choice for a vignette, or picture, on a bank note. He was universally accepted as a good, generous guy. Many people accepted a note just because Santa was on it and maybe, just maybe, they would save it. Another profitable venture for the banker.
Counterfeiters also used Santa on their notes, and a fair number of these notes survive today.
At least twenty banks used Santa vignettes on their notes. The twenty banks are:
City Bank of Biddeford, ME
Maine Bank, Brunswick, ME
Bucksport Bank of Bucksport, ME
Howard Banking Co. of Boston, MA
Conway Bank of Conway, MA
Spricket Falls Bank, Methuen, MA
Pittsfield Bank, Pittsfield, MA
The Central Bank, New Ulm, MN
Central Bank of Brooklyn, NY
Knickerbocker Bank of New York City, NY
Saint Nicholas Bank, New York, NY
The Bank of Sing-Sing, Sing-Sing, NY
Central Bank of Troy, Troy, NY
Green Mountain Bank of Lancaster, NH
Iron Bank, Pittsburgh, PA
Atlas Bank, Providence, RI
Mechanics & Manufacturers Bank, Providence, RI
Lamoille County Bank, Hyde Park, VT
Bank of Milwaukee, WI
Waupun Bank, Waupun, WI
Most banks issued several different denominations featuring Santa. Genuine Santa notes sell for a minimum of $500 to several thousands of dollars while contemporary counterfeits cost less. There are also some modern copies of these notes, usually on aged paper, that can be found for less than $5.
The notes of the Saint Nicholas Bank are special. These notes “have it all,” a Santa Claus vignette and “Saint Nicholas” in the bank title. The bank issued notes in many denominations, most featured a vignette of Santa. The Saint Nicholas Bank was founded in 1852 but bank officers changed frequently until 1856, when Caleb Barstow became president. He became the true New York Santa Claus. Barstow was known as “a very peculiar man,” even as he was praised for his “generous nature.” It seems that Barstow took to heart the ethos of St. Nick, believing it better to give than to receive. He contributed heavily to charities and handed out food and clothing to the poor. And though he accumulated a large fortune in his lifetime, he died penniless.
The Saint Nicholas Bank became the Saint Nicholas National Bank, Charter #972, on April 1, 1865. Sixty-nine notes, mostly $1 and $2, are known from this bank. None of it’s national bank notes pictured Santa Claus, but they sure are popular. Before its charter expired, the bank liquidated and again became the Saint Nicholas Bank. Under this name, the bank did not issue any more bank notes. This bank remained in business until December 1893, when it was declared “insolvent” by the State of New York.
Not rich enough for a real Santa Claus note? There is still a gift answer. Many businesses and individuals have Santa’s portrait on $1 bills for the Holiday season. They are inexpensive – most under $3. They are readily available around Christmas and on line all year round.
Happy New Year!