HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Home for the Holidays: Samuel Robb’s Santa Claus Figure

This jolly Santa Claus figure made in 1923 by New York City carver Samuel Robb achieved a record auction price of $875,000 in 2014 when we acquired it for a private collector. Although many will recognize it as an icon of American folk art, less well known is the heartwarming story of family reconciliation and togetherness that brought about its creation.

Samuel Anderson Robb (1851–1928), Santa Claus, New York City, 1923. Paint on wood with mica, H. 38-3/4, W. 16, D. 15-7/8 in. Private collection.
Samuel Anderson Robb (1851–1928), Santa Claus, New York City, 1923. Paint on wood with mica, H. 38-3/4, W. 16, D. 15-7/8 in. Private collection.

This lively depiction of Santa Claus was the last figure to have been carved by Samuel Robb, who is considered to have been the preeminent maker of shop and cigar store figures in New York City between 1876 and 1903. Made as a Christmas present for his daughter Elizabeth in 1923, the smiling plump face and finely carved beard demonstrate that Robb still possessed the acumen of a master carver at age 72.  Frederick Fried, a pioneer in American folk sculpture, discovered this “right jolly old elf” at Elizabeth Robb’s Manhattan home while conducting research for a definitive study on American figure carvers in the 1960s.

Detail of the back side of Robb’s Santa Claus. A generation of younger Robb cousins regarded their aunt Elizabeth as a grandmotherly figure who always left envelopes of money for them in the open sack on Santa Claus’s back at Christmastime.
Detail of the back side of Robb’s Santa Claus. A generation of younger Robb cousins regarded their aunt Elizabeth as a grandmotherly figure who always left envelopes of money for them in the open sack on Santa Claus’s back at Christmastime.

Samuel Anderson Robb (1851-1928) is best known as the skillful carver behind numerous cigar store Indians and other shop figures prominently featured in museum galleries and private collections. His father, Peter Robb, was a Scottish-born ship carpenter and his mother, Elizabeth Anderson, belonged to a New York family of shipcarvers. It’s thought that Robb began his career as a teenage apprentice for Thomas V. Brooks (1828-1895) who was a leading carver of ship and shop figures in New York and Chicago. Robb then went to work for William Demuth (1835-1911) whose company, William Demuth & Co., mass produced shop figures based on Robb’s models. Demuth & Co. manufactured and distributed tobacco-related advertising figures in both wood and metal. In 1871, the company was the first to produce American-made glass Christmas ornaments [1].

Christmas celebrations evolved tremendously over the course of the 19th century from being hardly celebrated to fully commercialized. The holiday gained popularity through the dissemination of print sources and newspaper advertisements for toys, confections, and other gifts. On December 23, 1823, a poem titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was published anonymously in the Sentinel, the local newspaper of Troy, New York (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore) and by midcentury German inspired tabletop trees began to appear at church services and public squares. By the century’s close, the advancements in mechanization and industry that allowed for Demuth & Co. to efficiently produce and distribute shop figures also supplied readymade holiday goods to a new consumer middle class.

Agnes and Samuel A. Robb on their wedding day, October 12, 1881. The Frederick and Mary Fried Folk Art Archives, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Agnes and Samuel A. Robb on their wedding day, October 12, 1881. The Frederick and Mary Fried Folk Art Archives, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Louis Prang holiday card, 1883. Historic New England. Louis Prang produced the first commercial Christmas cards in the United States.
Louis Prang holiday card, 1883. Historic New England. Louis Prang produced the first commercial Christmas cards in the United States.

At the time when Demuth & Co. was prototyping its glass Christmas ornaments, Robb was expanding his own prospects. Between 1865 and 1872 he was periodically enrolled at the National Academy of Design and in 1872 he earned a certificate in perspective drawing from the Free Night School of Science and Art at Cooper Union. In 1876 he opened his own shop at 195 Canal Street and by the 1880s it had become the largest figure carving shop in New York City [2]. Along with ten employees, Robb produced a large quantity of high-quality advertising sculptures in a wide assortment of models, ranging from cigar store Indians to baseball players. Between 1888 and 1903 the Robb workshop operated out of 114 Center Street.

In 1881, Robb married Agnes Loudon, the daughter of William Loudon, a wealthy New York real estate investor. Robb listed his occupation as “Artist in Wood” on their wedding license. The couple lived with Agnes’ parents for the first seven years of their marriage and then shuffled in and out of Loudon’s Brooklyn investment properties. Unhappy with this pattern of living, Robb gave Agnes an ultimatum, asking that she choose between her father or himself. Despite being pregnant with their fourth child, Elizabeth, Agnes chose to stay with her parents.

Paint room in the workshop of Samuel Anderson Robb, 195 Canal Street, New York, circa 1879. Robb can be seen on the right. The Frederick and Mary Fried Folk Arts Archives, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Paint room in the workshop of Samuel Anderson Robb, 195 Canal Street, New York, circa 1879. Robb can be seen on the right. The Frederick and Mary Fried Folk Arts Archives, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

One of the best sources on the trade comes from an article published in the August 3, 1890 issue of the New York Times, titled “Lo, the Wooden Indian.” The author, Frank Weitenkampf, describes the manufacture of shop figures and lists a variety of figures in addition to the cigar store Indian, such as “the dude,” Punch, and baseball players and states that “nearly all of these figures came from Robb’s shop”[3].  The article describes Robb’s method in detail and due to its significance, it’s quoted here at length:

The wood used is generally white pine, which is bought in logs of various lengths at the spar yards. The artist begins by making the roughest kind of outline—a mere suggestion of what the proportions of the figure are to be. In this he is guided by paper patterns. The log is blocked out with the axe in appropriate spaces for the head, the body down to the waist, the portion from there to the knees, the rest of the legs (which are at once divided), and the feet. In this present embryo state the figure to be is not very apparent to the eye. The feeling of form in the chopped block is so very elementary as to have complete suggestiveness only for the practiced artist.

A hole is now bored into each end of the prepared log about 5 inches deep. Into each of these holes an iron bolt is placed, the projecting parts of which rests on supports, so that the body hangs free. The carver now goes from the general to the particular. The surface of the wood soon becomes chipped up by the chisel, and the log generally takes on more definite form. Then, when the figure is completely evolved, the finishing touches are put on with carving tools. Detached hands and arms are made separately and joined on to the body with screws. Then the various portions of the figure are appropriately painted, the whole is set upon a stand running on wheels, and it is ready for delivery.

As the master carver, Robb would start and finish each figure with journeymen doing everything in between.

Samuel Anderson Robb (1851–1928), Punch Tobacconist Figure, New York City, circa 1880. Paint on wood. H. 75, W. 19, D. 19 in. (with base) Inscribed on base: “HAVANA / CIGARS” front, “CIGARS / TOBACCO” proper right, “SMOKERS / ARTICLES” proper left. Sold by us to a private collector in 2018.
Samuel Anderson Robb (1851–1928), Punch Tobacconist Figure, New York City, circa 1880. Paint on wood. H. 75, W. 19, D. 19 in. (with base) Inscribed on base: “HAVANA / CIGARS” front, “CIGARS / TOBACCO” proper right, “SMOKERS / ARTICLES” proper left. Sold by us to a private collector in 2018.
Samuel Anderson Robb (1851–1928), Baseball player, New York City, 1888–1903. Paint on wood. H. 76, W. 21¾, D. 24 (with base) in. Inscribed on base: “Robb. Manu’fr. 114 Center St NY.” American Folk Art Museum; Gift of Millie and Bill Gladstone (2008.26.1). Photography by Gavin Ashworth.
Samuel Anderson Robb (1851–1928), Baseball player, New York City, 1888–1903. Paint on wood. H. 76, W. 21¾, D. 24 (with base) in. Inscribed on base: “Robb. Manu’fr. 114 Center St NY.” American Folk Art Museum; Gift of Millie and Bill Gladstone (2008.26.1). Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

1881 was also the year that the popular image of Santa Claus was cemented. Combining European traditions of St. Nicholas with folk images of elves from his native Germany, cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Santa Claus as a jolly gift-giver in the January 1, 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s Santa Claus, which echoes Clement Clarke Moore’s cheerful and chubby Saint Nicholas, was a departure from traditional depictions of Saint Nick as a thinner, younger, horse-riding disciplinarian. Nast was also the first to give Santa a North Pole address.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902), “Merry Old Santa Claus,” in Harper’s Weekly, January 1, 1881. Wood engraving.
Thomas Nast (1840-1902), “Merry Old Santa Claus,” in Harper’s Weekly, January 1, 1881. Wood engraving.

Robb closed his Center Street workshop in 1903, not long after completing a major commission of elaborate circus wagons for Barnum and Bailey [3]. That same year, an article titled “Is the Wooden Indian Passing Away?” was published in the serial Tobacco and deemed the cigar store Indian—which had once been Robb’s bread and butter—“simply out of fashion” [4]. For the next few years, Robb operated on a smaller scale at several different locations. By this time, the trade was far less in demand than it had been in the heyday of the 1870s and 80s.

After parting ways, Robb did not see his wife nor his children for seventeen years. In 1905, Robb and Agnes accidentally encountered one another on a New York City street where, according to Fried, “without a word, they fell into each other’s arms.” Having reached her teenage years without ever knowing her father, Elizabeth previously regarded Robb as a deserter and had no interest in meeting him. However, before the day was over, Elizabeth had reconciled with her father and all grievances were forgotten. Robb soon moved in with Agnes and Elizabeth at 329 West 21st Street, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. In 1910, the reunited Robb family moved to West 156st Street in northern Manhattan, where Robb kept a workshop and specialized in smaller carvings.

Samuel, Agnes, and Elizabeth Wilson Robb, June 1905. The Frederick and Mary Fried Folk Arts Archives, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Samuel, Agnes, and Elizabeth Wilson Robb, June 1905. The Frederick and Mary Fried Folk Arts Archives, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

In the lead up to Christmas of 1923, Samuel Robb—now Home for the Holidays—was working in secret on a small figure which he kept locked in his workshop closet. On Christmas morning, Elizabeth found next to the tree a carved and painted Santa Claus holding a feather tree decorated with ornaments. The hollow pack on his back, filled with candles and small wrapped gifts, also contained a card, “To Elizabeth, Merry Christmas, from Dad.” This was the last figure carved by Samuel Robb. He died four years later after an extended illness.

The Santa Claus figure displayed in the apartment of Elizabeth Robb, New York City, ca. 1950. Photograph courtesy of a Robb family descendant.
The Santa Claus figure displayed in the apartment of Elizabeth Robb, New York City, ca. 1950. Photograph courtesy of a Robb family descendant.

In addition to evincing Robb’s masterful, individual style in the carving, the paintwork is imaginative. Applied mica chips impart a reflective quality to the white-painted snow accumulated on Santa’s boots, coat, and cap. Unlike the majority of Robb’s commercial figures that were displayed out of doors and weathered over time, the painted surfaces of the Santa Claus figure are nearly pristine.

In addition to evincing Robb’s masterful, individual style in the carving, the paintwork is imaginative. Applied mica chips impart a reflective quality to the white-painted snow accumulated on Santa’s boots, coat, and cap. Unlike the majority of Robb’s commercial figures that were displayed out of doors and weathered over time, the painted surfaces of the Santa Claus figure are nearly pristine.

Robb likely modeled his Santa Claus after images depicted in early twentieth-century holiday cards, advertising and magazine covers, which in turn were derived from Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus. By the time of the First World War, this iconic representation of the jolly Santa Claus wearing the familiar white fur trimmed cap and matching red suit was fully established in our national consciousness.

1922 Cream of Wheat Co. ad painted by Edward V. Brewer.
1922 Cream of Wheat Co. ad painted by Edward V. Brewer.

When Frederick Fried first sought out to interview Elizabeth Robb in the 1960s, she was not only reluctant but threatened to call the police. After months of effort and letters from the Smithsonian, Elizabeth finally acquiesced and agreed to speak with Fried; the two eventually became friends. From Elizabeth Robb, then 76 years old, Fried obtained a trove of original photographs, archival material, and oral history, but it was the touching gift from her father that made the greatest impact on Fried.

Frederick Fried in 1982 with Robb’s Santa Claus, Avenue Magazine.
Frederick Fried in 1982 with Robb’s Santa Claus, Avenue Magazine.

In 1966, Elizabeth Robb sold Fried her Santa Claus for $300. She inscribed the underside of the base: “THIS IS THE LAST FIGURE MADE BY SAMUEL A. ROBB IN 1923 SIGNED ELIZABETH W. ROBB MAY 16, 1966.” In 1983, Fried placed it at auction where it sold to a private collector for $44,000. When that collection went to auction in 2014, the Santa Claus sold at record price to a private collector. Since leaving Elizabeth’s hands, the figure has been in major museums, exhibitions and seminal reference books where it has been transformed from a Christmas gift to a recognized icon of American folk art.

Although “Home for the Holidays” has a new meaning this year, we hope you are able to connect with your loved ones and that 2021 finds us all reunited. Happy Holidays from all of us at David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles American Antiques.

By Laura Cunningham, Research Associate, with excerpts from David Schorsch’s article “Carver Samuel Robb’s Santa Claus” published in the Winter 2016 issue of Antiques and Fine Art Magazine.

[1] Wertkin, Gerard C., Ed. Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. 127.

[2] Sessions, Ralph. The Shipcarver’s Art: Figureheads and Cigarstore Indians in Nineteenth-Century America. (Princeton University Press, 2005): 115.

[3] Weitenkampf, Frederick. “Lo, the Wooden Indian.” New York Times, August 3, 1890: 3.

[4] Sessions, Ralph. The Shipcarver’s Art: Figureheads and Cigarstore Indians in Nineteenth-Century America. (Princeton University Press, 2005): 199.

[5] “Is the Wooden Indian Passing Away?” Tobacco 34 (January, 16, 1903): 3.