During the 19th century, America had a somewhat more immediate relationship with Saint Nicholas, the figure popularly known in Christmas folklore as Santa Claus. This is the era when American industry really took off; when robber barons eagerly concentrated the nation’s wealth; and when fly-by-night “wildcat” banks dotted the entire country.
In fact, there were more than 2,000 private lenders set up across the Union, printing their own forms of money, by 1850.
Among them, naturally, was good ol’ Saint Nick.
Santa Claus Origins
While the concept of Santa Claus has existed for much longer, the vision of a jolly gift-bringer approaching our current imagining of Santa was popularized by Northern Europeans, especially the Dutch. This historical thread was extrapolated and modified by the famous American author, Washington Irving. In truth, Irving was the real creator of how we see Santa today—with reindeer, a sleigh, and “home invasions via chimney.”
A Bank Fit for Saint Nick
Building upon Irving’s stories and the notion that New York City was founded by Dutch merchants, a New York bank sprung up in the 1850s known as Saint Nicholas Bank. Fittingly, the institution featured Mr. Claus in a familiar Christmas scene on all of its paper notes except for the $100 note. Moreover, classic Dutch imagery (ships and architecture) also appear on these banknotes, reinforcing the popularized Santa story.
The bank was active between 1853 and 1893. Its most prominent president seemed to embody the idea of the bank’s “patron saint” by engaging in incredible acts of charity. The man, named Caleb Barstow, was president of the Saint Nicholas Bank from 1856 to 1874. His charitable givings went beyond simple generosity: he frequently gave food and clothing to the poor, among other donations, and died with none of his fortune remaining. This certainly makes Barstow an enigmatic figure among the typically greed-filled world of Gilded Age bankers.
May we all embody the same giving spirit this holiday season!