December is here and as the song says: Here comes Santa Claus, Here comes Santa Claus, Right down Santa Claus lane… But where did Santa Claus come from?

It turns out that like the great “melting pot” of America, Santa Claus himself is a melting pot of different cultural traditions – born here in America somewhere around 1774 the Santa Claus we know and love descends from a combination of Christian, Germanic, Dutch, Norse, Scandinavian, and British folklore, traditions, and seasonal figures.


Saint Nicholas

The bearded Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century Greek Christian bishop renowned for his generosity towards the poor, traveling the countryside and often presenting them with gifts.  His gift-giving and kindness became legend, so much so that during the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe.




13th Century Norse God Odin was commonly celebrated during the Germanic holiday of Yule (celebrated during December).  Also bearded, Odin was said to lead a great hunting party through the sky during Yule while riding an eight-legged horse that could leap great distances.  In some areas, children placed boots with carrots, straw, or sugar in them near the chimney for Odin’s horse.  Odin, pleased with their thoughtfulness, would then fill their boots with gifts or candy.



In the 16th Century, the Dutch Sinterklaas is depicted as an elderly, serious man with white hair and long beard who wore a long red cape over traditional white garments.  Keeping careful track of those who are “naughty” and those who are “nice”, Sinterklaas also distributes presents to children – gifts, chocoloate letters, candies, and spice nuts to those who had behaved and spankings for those who had not.



der Belsnickel

When Europeans from the Alps came to America and settled around Lancaster County, they brought with them many traditions – including der Belsnickel.  der Belsnickel is a dirty, fur-covered, grumpy old man who wonders about town in the weeks before Christmas to interrogate the children to determine if they were naughty or well-behaved.  Asking them to recite Bible verses or answer questions designed to determine their character and disposition – der Belsnickel punished those who didn’t pass the test with a swat of the wooden stick (or whip) he carried.


Father Christmas

In the 15th Century, British carols began referencing a sire or lord of Christmas as a personification of the seasonal celebration, though the “jolly” rounded figure of Father Christmas wearing a long, green, fur-lined rob didn’t appear until the 17th Century when the somber Puritans were highly critical of Christmas traditions.



Those figures, as well as a number of traditions and celebrations surrounding them, are the foundation of the modern, American Santa Claus.  But it wasn’t until cartoonist Thomas Nast came along in the mid-1800’s that the jolly old man bringing presents to children around the world on a reindeer sleigh became canonized as our very own American icon.  Santa Claus.


I am young (if we’re calling our 30’s “young” these days) and have only ever known working after labor legislation like the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Equal Opportunity Employment, etc.

In other words, I’ve only ever been a fairly privileged worker who’s enjoyed safe, sanitary, non-discriminatory working environments.  And Labor Day to me has always been about a day off of work where I could relax and get paid for it and backyard BBQ’s where I could enjoy the company of family and friends with a beer in my hand.  It wasn’t until recently, that I started thinking about the history of Labor Day, the history of labor in our country.

Its not a great history, often it’s downright horrendous – like the working environments of 100 years ago.  Working environments like the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that in 1911 lead to one of our nation’s worst factory fires.

In a mere 20 minutes, 146 people were dead – mostly recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women.  15-year-old Ida Brodsky, a Russian Jew who came to the United States only nine months earlier. Jacob Klein, a 23-year-old Jewish man from Russia who had been here for five years. 43-year-old Provindenza Panno, a married Catholic woman from Italy. 15-year-old Bessie Viviano who came to the United States from Italy when she was a year old.

It took nearly 100 years for all of the victims of the fire to be positively identified, with the final six identifications completed just recently, according to the Department of Labor’s website.

A combination of overcrowding, unsafe working conditions with numerous fire hazards, and bad architecture…yes, bad architectural design… lead to the tragic fire.  A fire that would help fuel the growing labor movement’s aims to protect American workers.

These are the people Labor Day is truly meant to honor.  Not me, the worker who has never worked more than 50-60 hours a week (and then only voluntarily), who never worked in a building that didn’t have adequate sprinkler systems or means of egress in case of fire, who has never worked for a company that would literally lock me in so I couldn’t leave before my day was up, who has never worked with out regular breaks, has never worked without some kind of benefit package that would allow me to take vacation or sick days and offered health insurance, has never worked in unsanitary environments that were rife with infectious diseases.

Labor Day is no longer just about fun and games for me, it’s also now become a somber remembrance of the American workers who paved the way for me to enjoy the working environments I have been privileged with today.  Yes, Labor Day is still a day of celebrating America’s workforce, an important part of which are the workers who lost their lives before anyone really cared about that workforce.


Further Reading on the History of Labor Day and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

The DOL’s page on Labor Day 2012:

Wiki’s page on Labor Day:

The Department of Labor’s page on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

OSHA’s “Lessons from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire”:

A Register-Star article about the Triangle Fire with firsthand accounts:

Karri likes to have fun with Photoshop at home late at night when she can’t sleep. Last time she put Tudor chimneys on an Arts & Crafts bungalow. This time, she decided to make a preservation-themed “Hey Girl” meme. We think it’s a good thing she suffers from chronic insomnia and will keep us supplied with preservation memes – very entertaining!

We might celebrate our independence on the 4th of July every year, but we actually declared our independence on the 8th of July in 1776.  In honor of our birth as a nation, our Declaration of Independence is read aloud in Independence National Park on the 8th of July every year.  Watch the video below to hear last year’s reading.

Take a 30-second field trip to the Liberty Bell Center at Independence National Historical Park and learn the (maybe surprising) way our bell came to be called the Liberty Bell. It may have tolled for independence on that fateful day in 1776, but we didn’t call it the Liberty Bell back then.

Yesterday, Preservation in Pink posted one of her “Preservation Pop Quiz” posts that featured some very decorative 3D brickwork.  (If you know anything about 3D brickwork, you might want to pop over there and help us all out – we’re having a hard time identifying the term used to describe making 3D cornice work with bricks.) 
While musing about how I would describe that brickwork, I realized it reminded me of the 3D brickwork often seen on Tudor chimneys.  The Tudor architectural style was a type of medieval architecture occurring during the Tudor period in England (late 1400’s to right around 1600).  
Most of us have some image we conjure up when we hear “Tudor style”, and for me it is definitely the gorgeous Tudor chimneys.  They really are marvels of human imagination, design, and engineering.  I fell in love with them when I first saw them, and even though my dream house is an Arts & Crafts bungalow – I want a Tudor chimney.  
Tudor chimneys on an Arts & Crafts bungalow…. I’m not sure I could convince my husband to give it a try.


What do the Department of Energy’s superconductivity and hydrogen programs have in common with a postcard collection at Landis Valley Museum?

Russ Eaton.     

Named Volunteer of the Year in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) for his work on the postcard collection at Landis Valley Museum (administered by the PHMC), Russ isn’t really your ordinary man.  And it isn’t just his distinguished white hair that sets him apart from the rest.


Born and raised in Ohio, Russ earned three degrees in Physics and spent over twenty years working for the Department of Energy. During his time as an engineer at the Department of Energy, Russ worked both in regional offices and at their headquarters in D.C. And as it turns out, it would be a good thing he had those three physics degrees…. Russ worked on research in both the former hydrogen program that explored the use of nuclear fissions in electrical energy applications and the development of high-temperature superconducting materials.


In 2003, Russ and his wife moved to Lancaster, PA…

…and a whole new side of Russ began to show.

Facing more free time than his career had ever given him, Russ began volunteering – something he hadn’t really done much of before retirement.  One day, when serendipity was apparently floating extra freely in the air, the Curator at Landis Valley invited volunteer Russ into the museum’s gallery to see the various collections maintained at the museum.  While in the gallery, Russ noticed a very large, and very disorganized, postcard collection.


It was love, of a sort, at first sight…


Or maybe it would technically be second, or even five hundred and seventy-second sight, because as fate would have it, Russ has been collecting postcards since he was a young boy.  Postcards have always held a special appeal for Russ, and he still has the cards he collected as a child because postcards still hold a special appeal for him.

So Russ began the work of cataloging, categorizing, and inventorying the vast postcard collection at Landis Valley (it’s actually one of the museum’s largest and most sophisticated collections).  It’s not necessarily easy work, despite the comfortable chair and climate-controlled work space. He’s had to develop a cataloging system for the collection, and then continue to develop that cataloging system as mini-collections within the collection start making themselves apparent over time.

His work often requires research – reaching out to historical organizations and agencies, postcard experts and collectors, tracking down personal histories and information about a sender or recipient, reading up on a particular postcard artist’s style and work, and more.

[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”left” cite=”” quotestyle=”style02″] “It’s not just about the art or the artifact, I find history in these postcards.”[/sws_blockquote_endquote] 

Like the history of the Ferman family that Russ stumbled across as he amassed a set of postcard correspondences between the Ferman family members, particularly from one of the brothers who served in the Navy.  Researching this brother, Russ discovered he could match the exact Naval cruises he made by cross-referencing the cities the cards were mailed from.

Or the set of cards mailed between a woman named Gussie Palmer and a man only known as “Carl” who courted Gussie quite humorously in a postcard romance.  This particular set of cards has stumped Russ – he’s been completely unable to identify who “Carl” is, or even where he’s from.

Russ sees postcards that range from the type of “real photo” postcards that Nettie Mae Landis liked to create and receive, the various postcards featuring the Dionne Quintuplets, to artist-signed postcards by local Samuel Schmucker – who’s cards can demand a price as high as $400+ each.

But the strangest category of postcards Russ has seen yet are the postcards that have pictures of lynchings on the front of them.  When I speculated that perhaps that wasn’t any less morbid than the gruesome pictures regularly printed in newspapers, Russ astutely pointed out, “But they wrote ordinary things on the back! So you’d buy a postcard with four dead guys hanging from a tree to say ‘I’ll see you later this week’!”

When he put it that way….. yeah, I guess I have to admit that’s a little weird.

The postcard collection isn’t the only work Russ has done at Landis Valley, but his citation from the PHMC for his volunteer work is specifically for his work organizing and preserving the valuable Landis Family correspondences, as well as the bigger hobby collection Nettie Mae collected from people across the nation and around the world that she exchanged postcards with.  The PHMC resolution issued to Russ notes, “Bringing knowledge of the history of postcards to this work, he identified many cards of historic and artistic importance”.

So why does he do it?


“I have a great reverence for things that are old and worthwhile,” he says simply.


One of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s programs to work towards their goal of “providing leadership, education, advocacy, and resources to save America’s diverse historic places” is the proclamation of May as National Preservation Month.
As part of this program, the NTHP offers up a proclamation template that local governors and mayors can use to officially proclaim May as National Preservation Month (go ahead, you can steal it – the most creative people and the smartest entrepreneurs do).  
Now, we haven’t ever been officially elected to any public office position (it’s okay, we didn’t want to hold office anyway, we are just much too busy saving our built history), but we’re going to go ahead and take a few liberties and proclaim May as National Preservation Month anyway.

Heed our call to action and spread the word – May is National Preservation Month!  And we’ll be recognizing National Preservation Month all throughout May on our Facebook and blog with features on the “hidden gems” of historical preservation that we want to share with you – people, places, resources, and more from Lancaster and surrounding areas that you may not have met before.  
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