In the early 20th century, Christmas became a big business. Christmas was becoming highly commercialized, and the Santa Claus that we know today was being established.
It was during this time one man saw an opportunity. He was able to fill a gap in the market and in answering the letters that children sent to Santa.
It was an incredible success, it was incredibly popular, and it was ultimately a giant scam.
Learn more about John Duval Gluk and the Santa Claus Association on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
There are many Christmas traditions which have developed over the centuries. One of these traditions is children writing letters to Santa Claus.
Santa letter writing is something that dates back to the early 19th century. Actually, the first letters were usually from Santa, not to Santa.
Parents would often send letters to their children under the guise of Santa to encourage them to be good. The earliest reference we have of Santa sending letters to children dates back to 1820. The writer Theodore Ledyard Cuyler reminisced about his childhood when he noted he “once received an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels.”
Likewise, Fanny Longfellow, the wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote her children letters from Santa. On Christmas Eve 1851, she wrote to her young son, Charlie, “I am sorry I sometimes hear you are not so kind to your little brother as I wish you were.”
Eventually, children started taking the initiative and writing Santa. They would write Santa to tell him how good they were as well as let him know what they wanted for Christmas.
As early as 1870, the US Postal Service was reporting getting letters addressed to Santa Claus.
This was innocent enough, but there was a problem. When the postal service received a letter to Santa, who exactly were they supposed to deliver the letter to?
The general policy for the United States Postal Service was to treat letters to Santa Claus as they would any letter sent to an address that didn’t exist.
They would destroy them. They would be put in an incinerator, and the hopes and dreams of children would literally go up in flames.
In 1911, the Postal Service changed its policy. Instead of destroying the letters, when possible, the Postal Service would now forward the letters to various charity groups. However, not every city had charity groups that were willing to accept the letters to Santa.
Surprisingly, one of the cities that didn’t have any groups step forward to receive the letters to Santa was New York City.
Enter into the picture John Duval Gluk Jr.
Gluk was born, believe it or not, on Christmas Day, 1878, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. His Grandfather and great-uncle supposedly dressed as Santa Claus, so he seemed to have some affinity for Christmas.
His father ran a customs house where he worked, but he quit after the events of this episode took place.
Prior to 1913, there was absolutely nothing about the life of John Gluk that would warrant attention, for better or for worse.
So what happened in 1913 that was so special as to make John Gluk worthy of a podcast episode over 100 years later?
Gluk decided to step forward to become the organization that accepted letters to Santa in New York City. To do this, he established a charity known as the Santa Claus Association.
You probably haven’t heard of the Santa Claus Association, and that’s okay because I don’t think many people alive today have.
However, about 100 years ago, the Santa Claus Association became a big deal.
The Santa Claus Association would receive the letters from children addressed to Santa and then distribute them to volunteers in the community who would read the letters and reply or perhaps even send the child a toy.
The Santa Claus Association didn’t really do anything per se other than serve as a go-between for the post office and the volunteers.
Nonetheless, the Santa Claus Association quickly became a hit. Within just a few years, thousands of dollars in donations were flowing in to help cover the costs of the organization, which included postage, supplies, and gifts for children.
Movie stars from the period, such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, supported the association. The association also worked closely with civic and government leaders.
One of the reasons why the organization became such a huge hit was because of the heart-wrenching contents of some of the letters from poor children.
One of them wrote,
Dear Santa Claus, I heard about your great kindness to poor children, and I hope you will be good to us. I have a little cripple sister and a brother. My little cripple sister is only five, my papa has been out of work all summer. I hope you will answer soon and won’t forget us. Your little friend, Harriet
Another child wrote, “Mama Says That Santa Claus Does Not Come to Poor People…and I hope you don’t forget me like you did last year.”
Yet another child confided to Santa that “mama cries at night when she thinks we are asleep, because she has no money.”
One man who was in prison asked Santa to be released from jail in time for Christmas as well as for a lawyer and an appeal.
The Santa Claus Association seemed like one of the most wholesome and innocent organizations that a person could support. It was very much a grassroots organization with volunteers from the community providing most of the work around Christmas time.
On Christmas Day 1915, only two years after the association was founded, John Gluk, the president of the organization, made a huge announcement.
He convened the press and told them that he was going to build The Santa Claus Building.
The Santa Claus Building was to be an extremely ambitious undertaking for an organization whose mission was to answer children’s letters to Santa.
It was going to be located in Manhattan at the corner of 22nd Street and Broadway on a plot of land that was 100 by 70 feet.
However, it wasn’t just going to be a building, it was going to be a cathedral dedicated to Santa Claus and Christmas. Gluk had hired the noted architects George and Edward Blum, to design the building.
The exterior of the building was to be clad in white marble. The front of the building was to be an enormous arch, evoking the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Under the arch would be a giant, permanent Christmas tree.
There would be depictions of Christmas celebrations around the world from artists from their respective countries.
The feature that was to be the most prominent of the facade was a massive stained glass window that would be behind the tree. The stained glass would be 35 feet wide by 50 feet tall and would be a traditional image of Santa Claus.
The ground floor of the building would house the offices of the Santa Claus Association as well as other charities. There would also be an auditorium for children’s plays and lectures on education and childhood development and a children’s library.
On the second floor would be what Gluk called the Lilliputian Bazaar. It was to be a toy store with toys from all over the world.
On the top of the building would be a rooftop restaurant.
Needless to say, this was a huge jump for an organization whose mission was rather simple.
The media immediately fell in love with the idea. It was dubbed a “child wonderland,” “Santa Claus’s new home,” and “all-year palace.”
The Hartford, KY, Herald newspaper noted, “All effort like this should command commendation, and for the one simple reason, if for no other, that it tends to enrich the lives of children.”
Within the week, newsreels were showing images of the proposed building at movie theaters around the country.
When asked exactly what this grandiose temple to Christmas was going to cost, the answer was $300,000, which would be over $9 million dollars adjusted for inflation.
When it came to how he was going to pay for this, his plans weren’t nearly as detailed as the designs he had created for the building. He simply said, “The idea is one which should lend itself to the hearty cooperation of the public,” and “We will probably begin a campaign to ask the mothers of America to contribute to its construction.”
That was the entire plan for financing the operation.
Most newspapers didn’t bother asking questions regarding financing. In fact, many explicitly glossed over it.
One paper wrote, “Where the money will come from is the simplest problem in the world…Everybody in the world—that is nearly everybody in the world—owes something to the old gentleman with the snowy beard and the capaciously filled red suit; and it is self-evident that the nearly everybody who can possibly afford it will be delighted to give something to the erection of a building in the gentleman’s honor.”
The Santa Claus Association kept operating and branched out to other cities. For years, the organization engaged in fundraising both for the organization itself and for the Santa Claus Building.
For the most part, no one bothered to question where the money was going.
However, after 15 years of fundraising and no building to show for it, in 1927, the Commissioner for Public Welfare in New York City, Bird Coler, opened an investigation into John Gluk and the Santa Claus Association.
What he found was astonishing.
An audit of the Santa Claus Association found that almost no bookkeeping was conducted for the organization at all.
The senior officials in the organization turned out to just be figureheads who didn’t do anything. John Gluk did everything in the organization, so no one was able to ask any questions because no one had a clue what was going on.
He had created a mail list with 76,000 names on it to ask for donations, which included some of the wealthiest people in New York, including the likes of the Astors and the Vanderbilts.
None of the money raised for the Santa Claus building went toward the construction of the building. In fact, the money raised for postage and presents didn’t even go to its intended use.
Pretty much everything was going right into the pockets of John Duval Gluk.
Moreover, the Santa Claus Association wasn’t his only non-profit organization. He also ran organizations called the Defense Reports Committee, the Crusade against Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, the Serum Control of Cancer, and the Anti-Prohibition Group.
All of these organizations were run the same way, with all of the money going directly to Gluk.
Oddly enough, because the recordkeeping was so bad, there was little to no evidence actually to bring Gluk up on charges of fraud or embezzlement.
However, Bird Coler was able to take what he had found to the Postal Service, which immediately terminated their deal with the Santa Claus Association.
The Postal Service brought the project in-house and ran it under the name Operation Santa Claus. It still exists to this day and is completely run by volunteers who work for the post office.
John Gluk moved to Florida, became a real estate agent, and died in 1951 at the age of 73. He was never brought to trial for his involvement with the Santa Claus Association.
John Gluk was undoubtedly a con man and stole tens of thousands of dollars from people who thought they were donating to a good cause. But he did at least start the practice of answering letters to Santa.
Today, if you want to reach Santa by mail, and assuming you are in an area covered by the US Postal System, you can reach him at 123 Elf Road, North Pole 88888.
If you’ve been good, he just might write you back.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
Today’s review comes from listener Toffer007 over on YouTube They write…
5 – “O” CLASS STARS!! This podcast entered my life at the end of 2022, and I was immediately hooked on learning new information on subjects I never thought about before. I listen on my daily morning dog walk, and it gets my brain ready to take on the world and work. This podcast makes me want to travel more, learn more and speak to my family on facts they may or may not find interesting, only furthering my reputation as a typical Dad. I am also on a mission to get into the completionist club, but since you do this every day I feel like a dog chasing a squirrel that he will never catch, but the enticing membership lounge & plaque keep me trying. Thank you for all your hard-work and time you dedicate to your listeners.
Toffer007 in St Charles, IL (And yes, a Bears Fan – Misery loves company, and this year, Green Bay makes for a great companion!!)
Thanks, Toffer! First, thanks for listening, and good luck on getting into the completionist club.
Second, I don’t know what misery and companionship you are talking about. The Packers are still in the playoff hunt, and the last time I checked, they beat the Bears this year…..again……for the 9th time in a row. If they beat them again on January 7th, it will be the longest winning streak in the 104-year history of the rivalry.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.