A thoroughly modern Santa Claus

Santa Claus’ two rigid airships over the Saint Lawrence River abreast of Québec, Québec. Anon., “Advertising – A.E. Rea & Company.” La Presse, 2 December 1910, 15.

Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome, yet again, to the wonderful world of aviation and space. And winter. And snow, but I digress. Given the time of year, yours truly decided to break away from our anniversarial tradition in order to bring you some holiday cheers. In other words, the topic of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee will be Christmassy rather than calendarially correct, and yes, I know, that these words do not exist. Our topic, say I, will, however, touch upon one of the subject areas of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. I shall endeavour to be brief.

Our story began on 25 November 1910, when a department store from Montréal, Québec, A.E. Rea & Company, put out the first of 7 large size ads in the 2 most important dailies published in what was then the metropolis of Canada, La Presse and The Montreal Daily Star. Created in English but translated into French, to a point, said ads described the aerial journey made by Santa Claus, from his secret hideout at the North Pole all the way to, you guessed it, Montréal. And yes, the jolly old elf was known as Santa Claus even in La Presse and other French language newspapers in Québec. The French name under which he is known today, i.e. père Noël, had yet to be invented.

Thus, say I, on 25 November, the superb drawing on the first ad showed a resolutely modern Santa Claus standing on an icy surface at the North Pole as his crew loaded the 2 giant airships under his command, the Reindeer and the Reindeer Junior. No hoofed mammals from the species Rangifer tarandus for this gentleman, no siree. This, after all, was the 20th century. Did you know that a reindeer and a caribou are pretty much the same thing? I did not.

Many crates, probably filled with gifts, were clearly visible. It should be noted that the Santa Claus of the ad was in all respects identical to the one we can see in 2018 in shopping centers, on television or elsewhere: an old man with a white beard and a bit of a paunch who wore a tuque, boots and a fur-trimmed suit with a wide belt.

The ad suggested to the girls and boys to read carefully the texts that would be published day after day. The parents of these children were not forgotten. The last sentence of the text, in capital letters, was mainly addressed to them: “It will be wise to shop early on Saturday” 26 November.

The Reindeer and the Reindeer Junior were very similar in appearance to the flying machines developed by a former lieutenant general in the army of Württemberg, one of the states / kingdoms that made up the German Empire. This charismatic, charming, intelligent and self-confident individual was a born leader with an iron will whose disdain of Prussian arrogance may have ticked off the thoroughly Prussian emperor of the German empire, Wilhelm II, born Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert “Willy” Hohenzollern. As a result, the performance of this officer during manoeuvres was deemed so unsatisfactory that he was forced to retire, in 1891. Understandably enough, count Ferdinand Adolf August Heinrich von Zeppelin was deeply offended.

The flying machines whose similarity to Reindeer and, somewhat less so, Reindeer Junior was just noted were rigid airships completed in 1909-10. Yours truly will go out on a limb here by suggesting that the artist who drew the ads published in La Presse and The Montreal Daily Star copied the looks of Zeppelin LZ5 Deutschland. This gigantic flying machine, the world’s first airliner if you must know, was operated by the world’s first airline, Deutsche Luftschiffahrts Aktiengesellschaft, or DELAG, for a few months only, in 1910, but back to our story.

As further proof of his modernist train of thought, Santa Claus sent the first of a series of marconigrams, in other words radio messages, to A.E. Rea & Company to keep the children of Montréal abreast of his project. He left the North Pole during the night of 25 / 26 November in order to visit a number of major toy making centres in Europe. This writer was not able to confirm that Santa Claus actually commanded the airship he flew in, the Reindeer. The captain of the Reindeer Junior could not be identified. Sorry.

Would you believe that the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, in Ottawa, a sister / brother institution of the aforementioned Canada Aviation and Space Museum, includes 4 kites that may, I repeat may, have been used during the world famous experiment set up at Signal Hill, Newfoundland, in December 1901, by Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi? What’s this I hear, you have no idea of what I’m talking (typing?) about? Really?! Shame. Marconi played a crucial role in the development of wireless telegraphy, as radio was called back then. Who do you think was involved in some part in the 1903 trials conducted by the Royal Navy mentioned in an October 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, the tooth fairy? Apologies.

Around 1900-01, Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company / Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Limited was not doing all that well, however. Marconi, a handsome, brilliant and ambitious young man, thought that a dramatic gesture was the solution to his problems. Well aware that the longest distance covered so far by radio signals was 130 or so kilometres (80 miles), our Italian friend announced in 1901 that he would send a signal across the Atlantic – a distance of more than 3 200 kilometres (2 000 miles). His business associates were stunned. Everyone was, actually.

The radio receiver that Marconi and his assistant set up at Signal Hill was a rather crude thingee, put up after the huge antenna built at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was smashed by a storm. The two men had to use kites to raise an antenna on this gale-swept cliff, and then only for brief periods of time each day. And yes, my reading friend, a September 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee dealt with an emergency radio transmitter whose antenna could be carried aloft by a kite. And no, my patriotic reading friend, Marconi’s experiment did not take place on Canadian soil. Newfoundland was actually an independent and sovereign Dominion in 1901, but back to our current digression.

On 12 December, on 3 occasions, Marconi and his assistant heard the pip pip pip they had been praying for. The transmitter Marconi had set up in Cornwall, in England, had managed to send the 3 Morse code dots of the letter S across the Atlantic. One could argue that our deeply interconnected world was born that day. As was to be expected, Marconi became one of the most famous individuals on this Earth. His financial worries were over. The fly in the ointment, if yours truly may use this expression, was that this turning point in human history may be no more than a hoary old myth.

The atmospheric conditions in December 1901 were such and the equipment used so primitive that many experts in radio wave propagation believe that Marconi and his assistant wanted, dare one say needed, to hear something so much that they mistook atmospheric noise for the 3 dots of the letter S. On the other hand, as motivated as Marconi was to hear something, few if any suggested that he actually lied about the whole thing, and… You seem shocked, my reading friend. Such frauds are sadly not unknown in the world of science, technology and innovation. It happened, is happening and will continue to happen. Dare one suggest that scientific fraud could be a very interesting if controversial topic for a temporary / travelling exhibition? If I may paraphrase a line from the 1985 song Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) by the British group Mike & the Mechanics, can you hear me, can you hear me, exhibition team colleagues from the Canada Science and Technology Museum?

Another explanation to the Signal Hill mystery could lie in the possibility that Marconi’s receiver and transmitter, the most powerful in the world at the time if you must know, transmitted and / or received signals on a large chunk of the electromagnetic wave spectrum. He and his assistant may have heard the 3 dots of the letter S broadcasted on a rogue frequency. In any event, even before the end of 1902, Marconi proved able to reliably send messages to ships located more than 3 200 kilometres (2 000 miles) away. All was well that ended well, I guess, if it was not for the fact that, in 1923, Marconi joined the Partito nazionale fascista, an unsavoury organisation founded in Italy not too long before by Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, an equally unsavoury individual mentioned in an August 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. So, back to our story, and the second ad published in La Presse and The Montreal Daily Star.

Santa Claus’ first stop was in Leipzig, Saxony, one of the states / kingdoms that made up the German Empire, where he arrived on the 25 November. About a ton, metric or non metric, of mechanical toys was loaded aboard the airships. There must have been something magical about Santa Claus’ flying machines. How else could they have covered the 5 500 or so kilometres (3 400 or so miles) that separated the North Pole from Leipzig in 12 to 15 hours? Airliners would not be able to cruise that fast until after the Second World War.

Santa Claus’ next stop was Paris where dolls wearing the latest fashion were carefully brought on board. Would it be improper to suggest that Santa Claus could / should have considered taking other gifts besides dolls while in Paris? Let us mention La Guerre infernale, published around 1908-09 in 1 or 2 very thick volumes. Originally published in 1908 as 32-page weekly booklets, 30 in all, aimed at teen readers, this engrossing description of a future fictional war was very popular with the public. Its author, Pierre Giffard, was one of the great French scientific journalists and communicators / popularisers of the Belle Époque. A reissue in 8 volumes of La Guerre infernale appeared in 1909 under the title of Les drames de l’air.

Now that yours truly has cogitated about this, offering books that provide a thrilling description of a future fictional war to young people might not be a good idea. Bad curator, Bad, bad curator.

Incidentally, Santa Claus got within a hair’s breadth of missing the departure of his airships. He had to use a rope ladder to board the Reindeer.

The Reindeer and Reindeer Junior then flew on to London. This writer was not able to identify the type of present acquired by Santa Claus in the British capital. I only know that he bought thousands of examples of the loveliest things. This being said (typed), the old elf took advantage of the opportunity offered to him to travel to Windsor Castle, the home of the British royal family.

Would you believe that the British monarch, King George V, born George Frederick Ernest Albert Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and the aforementioned Wilhelm II were cousins? The Russian tsar, Nikolai II, born Nikolai Alexandrovich “Nicky” Romanov, was also a cousin of these two individuals. If truth be told, George V and Nikolai II were so similar in appearance that one could think they were fraternal twins, but I digress.

Would it be improper to suggest what Santa Claus could / should have considered buying while in London? He could / should have considered the possibility of purchasing many copies of King of the Air; or, to Morocco in an Airship, one of the very popular teen adventure novels written by George Herbert Ely and Charles James L’Estrange, who teamed up under the name of Herbert Strang. Between 1907-08 and 1916, Ely and L’Estrange published 7 independent books on aviation. The fact that they worked for Oxford University Press gave a certain cachet to the many books they wrote. Their last aeronautical work was released in 1924.

One of Santa Claus’ elves might have suggested that he buy copies of The War in the Air by Herbert George Wells. Published in 1908 this description of a cataclysmic global war was / is / will remain one of the best science fiction novels of its type ever written. As you may have guessed, airships and aircraft played their part in the destruction of the world.

Just as prophetic as The War in the Air, The World Set Free seems to be the first fictional work that used the expression “atomic bomb.” Wells published this apocalyptic novel in 1914, just before the beginning of an apocalyptic conflict, the First World War. In 1911, The Lord of Labour, a novel published soon after the death of its author, British explorer, journalist and writer George Griffith, born George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones, offered to its readers the first depiction of atomic projectiles, in this case small devices fired from portable launchers. The big American industrial boss imagined by a French author of adventure novels, Louis Boussenard, on the other hand, thought about using intra-atomic energy in the open war he was fighting with his competitors and with workers. The very much forgotten novel that described this conflict, Les Gratteurs de ciel, arrived in bookstores in 1907.

This being said (typed?), the first description of a nuclear weapon, built by an evil scientist who then blackmailed the world, can be found in a work just as little known. Irish author and journalist Robert Cromie published The Crack of Doom in 1895. This date of publication was / is particularly interesting, at least for me. You see, my reading friend, the French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered that a material known as uranium emitted some sort of energy, a characteristic soon christened radioactivity, in… 1896. Before that date, the idea that the energy inside the atoms that make up our world could be used for good, or evil, was pretty much unheard of. No one knows how Cromie came up with his nuclear weapon idea is unknown.

It so happens that another scientist, more specifically a British professor of physics by the name of Silvanus Phillips Thompson, discovered that uranium emitted some sort of energy around the same that that Becquerel did. The latter published his discovery first, however, and might have understood better what was taking place. Oddly enough, such cases of simultaneous discoveries are not unknown in the worlds of science and technology. And no, my conspiracy loving reading friend, yours truly does not think that Cromie somehow heard about Thompson’s discovery.

In any event, a small team headed by Ernest Rutherford explained what was happening inside a block of uranium, at the heart of its atoms, during a stay at McGill University of Montréal, between 1898 and 1907. This New Zealand physicist received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908 for this crucially important work, but back to our digression.

Would you believe that, between 1893 and 1895, the aforementioned Griffith published no less than 3 novels that contained fantastic airships and / or flying ships: The Angel of the Revolution : A Tale of the Coming Terror, Olga Romanoff or, the Syren of the Skies and The Outlaws of the Air? One of the artists who illustrated Griffith’s novels was none other than John Frederick Thomas Jane, the future editor of Jane’s All the World’s Fighting Ships and Jane’s All the World’s Air-Craft, world famous reference books published since 1898 and 1909, known in 2019 as IHS Jane’s Fighting Ships and IHS Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, but let’s go back to our story. Apologies for such a dark and warlike digression. Bad curator, Bad, bad curator. And yes, the fantastic library of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum has every volume of Jane’s All the World’s Air-Craft / IHS Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft.

During his stay in London, Santa Claus might have also considered the possibility of buying the first miniature puzzles, derived from postcards, that were part of a series of 6 launched around 1909 by a manufacturer of postcards, Raphael Tuck & Sons Limited. Known as Airships and Lighthouses, said series included an undetermined number of airships or aircraft. The 6 postcards that showed these flying machines were included in the box.

On 29 November, Santa Claus and his airships flew over the Eddystone lighthouse, off the coast of Cornwall, England. He launched himself across the Atlantic Ocean – a scene captured brilliantly by the artist who made the illustrations that accompanied the texts of the ads. Said text, on the other hand, reiterated the importance of shopping in the morning both to avoid crowds and to enjoy the special prices on many items.

The seventh and final ad, published on 2 December, showed the Reindeer and the Reindeer Junior flying over the Saint Lawrence River, abreast of Québec, Québec.

It goes without saying that this crossing of the Atlantic was entirely fictitious. Such an exploit was realized only after the First World War, in 1919 more precisely. April and October 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee referred to the crossings made by the crews of an American Curtiss NC flying boat and a British Vickers Vimy airplane.

Santa Claus disembarked later that day and boarded a special train to Montréal. Santa Claus, it seems, was coming to town.

The noble old man arrived in Montréal on 3 December, around 9:15 AM. He went to the A. E. Rea & Company store in a horse-drawn vehicle. A fanfare accompanied him in the streets of the metropolis. Once at the store, Santa Claus rested a bit. At 3 PM, he attended a reception at the fairy cave / toy festival. Yours truly has a feeling that many children were present.

The ads published by A.E. Rea & Company in November and December 1910 were but one example of the commercialisation of the celebrations surrounding Christmas, a rather traditional holiday until then. Santa Claus himself was a fairly recent invention and it made sense to somehow link him with the flying machines that proved so fascinating to the general public. Society was indeed changing. A mass culture was gaining ground. Traditional values were replaced by new values that quickly became traditions. And on it went / goes / will go. Aren’t modernity and postmodernity wonderful?

Actually, the introduction of aeronautical themes in the ads that appeared in the major daily newspapers of major Canadian cities closely followed the appearance of the first powered flying machines. One only had to think about what was happening in Montréal in 1909. On 26 November, A. E. Rea & Company published an ad in La Presse and The Montreal Daily Star. Readers could see Santa Claus at the controls of an airplane very similar to those produced by Wright Company, the firm founded by Orville and Wilbur Wright, two aviation pioneers known worldwide mentioned a few times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2018. The ad reminded parents and children alike of the grand Christmas opening to be held the next day.

Another Montréal department store, G.A. Holland & Son Company, used a somewhat different approach. Indeed, the announcement that it published on 1 December 1910, in La Presse and La Patrie, another Montréal French-language daily, not to mention The Montreal Daily Star, used Santa Claus’ abilities as a pilot. A drawing showed the illustrious old man at the controls of an airplane that looked somewhat like the No. 20 Demoiselle, an airplane designed by Alberto Santos Dumont, a Brazilian aviation pioneer mentioned in a November 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Many toys could be seen near Santa Claus.

An ad appeared in the December 9, 1910 in La Presse and The Montreal Daily Star. Made for Boston Shoe Store Limited, a Montréal-based shoe merchant, it showed Santa Claus aboard a biplane that closely resembled those of the Wright brothers. The artist had captured the noble old man throwing shoes into a chimney. A bag full of gifts was near him. The French-language daily published a modified version of this ad on 23 December.

The distribution of gifts held an equally important place in the beautiful color drawing that appeared on the front page of the 31 December 1910 issue of La Presse. At that time, this newspaper and its rival, La Patrie, published every Saturday a full-page drawing on extremely varied topics. The one that concerns us showed an airplane, a Voisin or Farman biplane of French design, flying over a large city, Montréal in all likelihood. A young woman wearing a suit that looked a lot like Santa Claus’ was sitting on the lower wing of the airplane. She offered a salute to the new year as various toys fell from the sky. Other toys were stacked on the lower wing of the biplane.

And that’s it for now. Do enjoy the holiday period.

Profile picture for user rfortier
Rénald Fortier