Some letters to Santa
Threats, complaints, and flirtations from a small town to the North Pole, circa 1921
100 years ago this month, Blanche Reep of Abbeville, South Carolina, wrote a letter to Santa Claus and had it published in her local newspaper.
Dear Santa,—Please send me a new automobile for Christmas, one with plenty of Speed. I want a lot of sick babies to play with during Christmas, and will need the automobile to take them riding. Will need a handsome chauffeur also, but I think I can get him myself. Send me a lot of nice things to eat Christmas because all the nurses at the hospital will be looking for something good and I want to give them a fine dinner. If you get sick this next year come to the Abbeville County Memorial Hospital and we will treat you right and pay for it with the baby fund. Dr. Gambrell will cut you all to pieces and not charge you a cent.
Yours for a good Christmas, .
This month, as I do every December, I’ve been re-reading some deeply weird letters to Santa that were published in the Abbeville Press and Standard in the early 1920s. The following letter might be the most famous one, from one Robert Jackson of Church Street:
If you’ve seen some of these letters floating around online, you probably remember either Robert’s letter or the following one:
I’m not sure who gets credit for digging these letters up first. I think I originally saw the newspaper clippings via @HorribleSanity on Twitter circa 2017, around the same time Christopher Bickel collected some of the letters for an article on dangerousminds.net.
I brought the Santa letters up to a former colleague who grew up in Abbeville, and he posed a fair question about their authenticity: Sure, they really ran in the paper, but were they actually written by children?
Armed with a newspapers.com account, I started digging around in the early-’20s archives of the Press and Standard.
What I found was weirder, funnier, and at times tinged with more pathos than the “fighter of Church Street” letter. Some of the letters were probably written by children, others by adults posing as children. Some were written by adults dealing with adult problems.
For starters, let’s return to Blanche Reep’s letter that ran on Dec. 23, 1921:
This was apparently an adult working in the medical field. It seems like she peppered her letter with inside jokes (and macabre ones!) to make her coworkers laugh.
According to the newspaper archives, one Blanche Reep was the superintendent of Memorial Hospital in the early 1920s. She often published appeals in the paper for people to chip in a dollar to the Hospital Baby Fund, which was set aside for “proper treatment in those cases where the parents were unable to furnish the treatment.”
As for the Dr. Gambrell who would cut Santa “to pieces,” there really was a Dr. C.C. Gambrell in Abbeville, who once served on the State Board of Health and could be seen driving around town in a new Ford automobile after serving in the Great War.
In the winter of 1921, though, when Ms. Reep asked Santa for a car, she had her eyes on a different doctor in town. According to an obituary I found later, Blanche Reep married one Dr. Howard Owens Speed around 1922. Also a World War I vet, he was a pharmacist and the proprietor of Speed Drug.
Hence, “one with plenty of Speed.”
I didn’t go into the Press and Standard Santa letter archives expecting to find a rich vein of local history. At best I was hoping to find more oddball threats on the big man’s life.
The more I read, the more fascinated I became.
According to the front-page news items, times were tough in Abbeville in the early 1920s. Agriculture was still a major part of the economy, and the cotton trade was in turmoil. Boll weevils were destroying farmers’ cash crops. (These were also the early days of Prohibition, and reports trickled in of cops busting up stills in the woods outside of town.)
Some of the letters displayed a dark streak of sarcasm, like this one from December 1920:
Some of the letters from children were achingly hopeful, like this one:
The violent threats on Santa’s life didn’t really take off until 1922, but there were already some odd descriptions of “bad boy” behavior in 1921. In this letter, 3-year-old Roddy Wilson Smith (or someone writing under his name) mentions the boll weevil problem and says he’s been going around killing black cats:
Whether the black cat thing was a running gag or a real behavior issue, Roddy (or “Roddy”) claimed to have cleaned up his act in 1922:
There’s … a lot going on in that letter. I couldn’t find any useful context in the archives, so make of it what you will.
My wife and I never really pushed the Santa myth on our children. We celebrate Christmas and even talk a little bit about the real Saint Nicholas, but the commercialized Santa figure just doesn’t jive with our value system.
Our twin daughters are 7 now, and we were talking the other night about the need for intrinsic motivation at their age: They should recognize what is good and seek to do good for its own sake, not to receive a bribe.
Anyway I am sure we’re overthinking it, but as we read through some of the Abbeville Santa letters last night, we were struck by the way children (or adults writing as children) talked about their worthiness and unworthiness, their guilt and their innocence.
Take this letter for instance:
Abbeville, S. C., Dec. 13, 1922.
I will write and tell you what I want you to bring me. I want a doll carriage, tea-set and cook stove. I already have a doll and she is so fat she burst every dress I make for her.
I am in fourth grade and I must be a bad girl or else my teacher thinks so, but I think I am getting along fine in my lessons.
I will tell you how I look. I have red hair and cat eyes, so you know how mean I am because I have red hair and folks say that red haired people are high tempered. I have a red skin and freckles and I'm pretty ugly I tell you.
We are going to have a Christmas tree at the Sharon school house on Thursday night and I expect to see you there.
My teacher's name is Miss McLendon. I think she is mean to me, but she is not I just think so.
I must stop.
Your little friend,
Sybel Campbell, Sharon school.
What sad things for a child to say about herself, or for an adult to say about a child.
I’ll leave you today with one more letter to Santa. This one is almost a pure mystery to me:
What a world. What a town.
You can … follow me (?) on newspapers.com if you want to see more of my newspaper finds. My username is paul_m_bowers, and my clippings can be found at this link.
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