This article by Wayne Youngblood is from the December issue of The American Philatelist.
It’s certainly no secret there is a very popular holiday post office that has catered to collectors and souvenir hunters for decades – the Santa Claus, Indiana, post office. Each year that small post office receives, by some estimates, close to one million items to be postmarked (more than 400,000 in December alone). It has featured its own special pictorial postmark every year except one since 1983. But there is much more to the story of the Santa Claus post office and its markings that dates back more than 150 years (even before Santa Claus himself became such a well-known figure in the late 1800s). With a bit of patience, a serious study of this town’s postal history and various cancellation devices could be developed. However, we’ll dip just our toes into that lagoon this month.
Figure 1. The author’s first encounter with Santa Claus (the post office, that is) was in the mid-1960s. Millions of children have received these “personal” letters from Santa.
My own first encounter with the town was in the mid-1960s, when my grandparents sent me “A Letter From Santa” just like the one shown in Figure 1, mailed in 1966. There have been many versions of the letter itself over the years, but the envelope, which has changed little, is rather iconic. Businesses could purchase these in bulk, imprint their names on them and distribute them free to customers, who would then address them to a child or grandchild, stamp them and drop them in “Santa’s Mailbox” at the store where they had been obtained. They would then be forwarded in bulk to Santa Claus, Indiana, for processing. I’ve seen imprints from Montgomery Ward (several locations), Big Blue Stores, F&M Bank, Belk-Lindsey (department store) and several small local businesses. I have also seen other variants of the covers themselves, as well as several completely different types produced by other companies, but that’s another story. As a side note, every year since at least 1914, Santa’s elves (volunteers) ensure every child who writes receives a reply from Santa. The number of replies average (in recent times) around 50,000 per year.
When the town (located in Spencer County, near the extreme southwest of the state) was laid out in 1846 (but not officially “founded”), those who plotted it could have had no idea what awaited later generations. In fact, the planned town was originally named Santa Fe, no doubt named for its New Mexico cousin, which had just been captured in August that year during the Mexican-American War.
Although verifiable details get a bit foggy from there, Santa Fe, Indiana, was officially founded as a town in 1854 but did not apply for a post office until 1855. By that time, another Santa Fe (also in Indiana), founded in 1848 and located in the north-central part of the state, had already applied for the name with the U.S. Post Office Department. That post office began operation in 1849. Thus, the original Santa Fe had to choose a new name, since the USPOD did not allow duplicated post office names in any state. This is where legend kicks in. As several versions of the story go, on Christmas Eve 1852 or 1855, citizens met in the church (which also served as a meeting hall) to discuss a new name for the town. A sudden gust of wind blew the doors open, there was a sound of sleigh bells and the kids all gasped, “Santa Claus!” Another version even mentions a meteor crashing near town, the North Star appearance inspiring the name (although I’m not sure exactly how a flashing meteor would invoke Santa Claus). The date is in dispute because, although the town celebrated its centennial as “Santa Claus” in 1952, there was no need to rename Santa Fe until a post office was needed in the town.
Either way, the Santa Claus, Indiana, post office opened May 21, 1856, with John Specht serving as the first postmaster. (He also was one of the original settlers who laid out the town a decade earlier.) I have not been able to locate any of the earliest of these postmarks, although I am certain they are out there for collectors to find.
Figure 2. The earliest-known Santa Claus postmark as a single word (from 1895). The USPOD changed the name (along with many others across the country) in an effort to “standardize” town names.
From there, apparently nothing too notable occurred until June 25, 1895, when the name of the town was officially changed from Santa Claus to “Santaclaus” (one word) as part of the USPOD’s new policy efforts at post office name standardization. Apparently, a new cancellation device reflecting that change had already been ordered. The Figure 2 cover, postmarked April 26, 1895 (the “5” was changed to a “6” by hand), is the earliest known postmark utilizing the new device. Although there is no year date in the marking, the date is verified by the contents of another cover from the same correspondence. A standard four-bar handstamp from 1915 showing the one-word name is featured in Figure 3 (the “C” didn’t print). Note that the printed cornercard still referred to the town as Santa Claus (two words).
Figure 3. A 1915 example of the one-word town name.
Figure 4. Although the name was changed back to Santa Claus on February 17, 1928, the town continued to use at least one device with the one-word spelling; this example is from July 1928.
The town lived with this rather annoying development until February 17, 1928, when the name was officially changed back to Santa Claus, although not all cancellation devices were immediately swapped out. Figure 4 shows a July 2, 1928, four-bar blue cancel that still utilizes the single-word version, while Figure 5 features a Christmas Day cancel from the same year (in matching ink), with the new two-word version. Both devices were apparently concurrently in use for a time.
Figure 5. An example of a Christmas Day postmark of 1928 with the two-word spelling. The ink color is the same as that found on the Figure 4 cover.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was a popular practice in fourth-class post offices to create special pictorial postmarks primarily for use as killers for registered mail (as of 1924, dated handstamps with a location name were not supposed to be found on the front of a cover). As fourth-class offices allowed the postmasters to keep revenue from stamp sales up to $1,500, postmasters, recognizing the revenue potential, created their own devices or used commercially available rubberstamps to create these cancels, usually in league with a handful of enterprising collectors.
In 1929, there was a fancy cancel created, apparently for use during the holidays (the only known cancel date is Christmas Day), showing Santa descending a chimney. That cancel is shown in Figure 6. The creator was unknown, but the cancel must have inspired Floyd Shockley, who was one of the more prolific creators of 20th-century fancy cancels.
Figure 6. Known only on Christmas Day, this fancy cancel appeared on covers in 1929. Courtesy of Daniel F. Kelleher Auctions, LLC.
In the case of Santa Claus, Shockley worked with Santa Claus postmaster James F. Martin to create at least three different fancy cancels in 1930.
Figure 7. Floyd Shockley, a well-known creator of 1930s fancy cancels (and addressee of this cover), was responsible for at least three different ones used in 1930.
Figure 8. Another Shockley fancy cancel, this one depicting a standing Santa Claus with a loaded pack.
Beginning in early 1930 (with strikes found as early as March), the markings shown in Figures 7 and 8 appeared. The third (not shown), features a right-facing square-shaped headshot of Santa. Figure 7 shows a slightly larger head-only image of an almost angry-looking Santa, and Figure 8 features a full-figure pose of Santa with a bag on his back.
Figure 9. Santa Claus local precancels, such as those shown on this parcel tag, began appearing in the early 1930s, likely for use on parcels bearing products manufactured by “Santa Claus Industries.”
Also in the 1930s, local precancels began appearing from Santa Claus. Several different devices are known, but the earliest I have seen began with the 1932 Washington Bicentennial issue. The mailing label shown in Figure 9 features the 2¢ and 4¢ values from the set affixed over a permit with a simulated Santa Claus machine cancel. The sender, Santa Claus Industries, was incorporated October 1, 1931, as a “general mercantile and manufacturing business …,” almost certainly to manufacture and sell Santa-themed toys and decorations. I suspect many of the early precancels were used to mail that company’s products. The town – at least until recently – still had a precancel device that was occasionally used. There was never a Bureau precancel created for Santa Claus.
Figure 10. The special pictorial metal die-hub machine cancel used in 1952 to mark the “official” centennial of the town’s name.
In 1952, Santa Claus officially celebrated its centennial under that name and placed the Figure 10 machine cancel into use for that year. The only other special machine cancel ever used by Santa Claus is the rather ubiquitous “Pray For Peace” slogan cancel of the 1960s.
Figure 11. An example of an attractive postmark from a steel duplex handstamp in use in 1959.
Meanwhile, the popularity and mail volume of the town continued to grow rapidly. By 1959, Santa Claus was sporting the new steel duplex canceler shown in Figure 11, and there have been several other hand-stamp devices since, in addition to the town’s standard wavy-line machine cancel.
Several stamps have been released in Santa Claus over the years, beginning with the 1963 Christmas issue (Scott 1240), the 1983 Santa stamp (Scott 2064) and the 2001 19th-century Santa block of four designs (Scott 3537-3744). This year’s Visit From St. Nick Forever stamps (again, four designs) were released October 7 in Santa Claus, adding yet another chapter to this ongoing story.
Some years ago, the late Roland Essig began an exhibit on Santa Claus, but didn’t have the chance to develop it too far. With new information available, it would be interesting to see a specialized collection or exhibit of the Santa Claus post office, and a study of its postmarking devices. The earliest material, of course, would be difficult to locate, since the town was tiny for so long. In fact, the first official population data, since the town didn’t incorporate until 1967, is from the 1970 census. There were only 63 residents at that time (more than 2,500 by 2020), despite the huge volume of mail it was already processing each year.
Santa Claus has indeed had a most unusual postal history. What’s in your collection?
About those cancels
Excluding the 1929-30 fancy cancels and the 1952 pictorial machine cancel, Santa Claus never had special Santa cancellations until 1983. That year, a contest was held through the nearby Heritage Hills High School to create the design that was used for what became the first in an annual tradition. That design is shown in Figure A.
Figure A. The first special pictorial handstamp from Santa Claus in 1983, which has been an annual tradition, excluding one year.
Each year since (except 1986, when the USPS did not, for unknown reasons, approve the design), Santa Claus has featured the artwork of a Heritage Hills High School upperclassman as its cancellation design. As expected, the artwork itself varies in quality from year to year. Some are fairly rich in topical subjects. Seniors are now encouraged to submit a single design during the spring semester to be evaluated. Entries are narrowed down and a final design is selected by the postmaster to be used as the special cancellation for that year.
Figure B. The designer of this 1989 pictorial postmark, Kim Brown, is now the art teacher at Heritage Hills High School, where the annual postmark competition is held.
Kim Brown was the winner of the 1989 contest, creating a large image of the Jolly Old Elf himself, smiling and wearing his hat at a rakish angle. Her entry is also shown in Figure B. Brown is now the art teacher at Heritage Hills!
If you’d like to obtain this year’s cancel …
As of this writing, Santa Claus had not yet revealed its 2021 postmark design, but the special holiday postmarks are always available from Dec. 1-24. The only cost is your postage; there is no charge for postmarking.
If you wish, you can travel to the famous post office to hand-cancel your own mail, but you may wish to mail your stamped, addressed Christmas cards or other stamped, addressed covers to be returned to you to the post office and request the special Santa Claus pictorial postmark. Package however many stamped, addressed envelopes or Christmas cards you wish to have canceled (there is a limit of 50) into a sturdy envelope or box and mail them to: Postmaster, P.O. Box 9998, Santa Claus, IN 47579-9998. Please include a note requesting the special pictorial postmark to avoid confusion.
To ensure a clear postmark, allow a space in the stamp area of about two by four inches to accommodate the size of the device. If you do not have an enclosure in your cover(s) already (such as a letter or a holiday card), you may wish to consider enclosing a postal card or index card to help avoid damage in the mail system.
As a side note, there have been several official cachets used by Santa Claus over the years. These are applied on the left side of an envelope by postal clerks at the post office, so are arguably an official postal marking. Not every cover bears a cachet, but an impressive percentage of those I have seen do. The cachets also are used, upon request, on covers presented for cancellation throughout the year (when the special pictorial version isn’t available).
Figure C. At least six different identifiable versions of this post office cachet have been used since the mid-1940s. This example is from 1981.
Most of the Santa Claus cachets are versions of the one shown in Figure C (from 1981), with Santa’s sleigh crossing a full moon. Including die styles, typefont differences and with/without ZIP Code, there are at least a half-dozen varieties known since the mid-1940s (probably more), opening another area that begs attention and research.
Figure D. This cachet, improperly used to cancel a stamp on this 2004 cover, has seen only limited usage.
A second design type (also shown in Figure D) was used briefly in the early 2000s. This example, technically against regulations, was used to cancel a stamp sometime in 2004. The marking is undated, since it was supposed to be used as a cachet, rather than as a postmark.
Figure E. The cachet used on this 1987 cover is the postmark design that was not approved for use in 1986.
Perhaps the most interesting of these cachets is the one that was used during the late 1980s (also shown in Figure E). In this case the marking is the design that was originally chosen to be the 1986 pictorial postmark. It is the one time since 1983 that the design was not approved for use. As a result, it was relegated to cachet status and has been found on a handful of covers, this example from the following year, in 1987. No one, including the postmaster of Santa Claus, ever knew why it wasn’t approved. It may have simply died on someone’s desk in Washington, D.C.