Monday, December 7, 2020

A Kinder, Gentler Holiday: Innovating Christmas in America

Thomas Nast's famous "Merry Old Santa
Claus" from the January 1, 1881 edition
of Harper's Weekly 
Reupping the story of John Pintard and his innovation of the Christmas season, a deleted chapter from the final draft of "Innovation on Tap." Pintard engaged in social engineering, a type of innovation that almost always fails, almost. . .

Between 1790 and 1840, the combined population of New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston grew from 94,000 to 626,000 residents.  An antiquated colonial watch system, overwhelmed by disorder and crime, gradually gave way in the 1830s to the first police forces, themselves overwhelmed by corruption and incompetence.  
Politics, religion, immigration, and race were all divisive issues.  A sudden financial panic could swell the numbers of unemployed.  Urban poverty and vagrancy grew.  The threat of violence hung in the air.  Mob activity was seen by many as a valid way to deliver justice when the law hesitated or failed. 
“A man ought to fear God, and mind his business,” congressman Reuben Davis wrote, summing up one version of the American credo.  “He should be respectful and courteous to all women; he should love his friends and hate his enemies.  He should eat when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, dance when he was merry, vote for the candidate he liked best, and knock down any man who questioned his right to these privileges.[1]  Violence, Davis believed, was simply part of how an American protected his freedoms. 
Likewise, when Frenchman Michel Chevalier toured the country in 1839, he noted that citizens gathered in the morning to share the news of hangings and floggings—“and then go on to the price of cotton and coffee.”  There was little difference North or South, East or West.  “A riot which in France would put a stop to business,” he wrote, “prevents no one here from going to the Exchange, speculating, turning over a dollar and making money.”[2]
For wealthy New Yorkers such as John Pintard (1759-1844) and his friends, escape from these terrifying moments of “mobocracy” meant heading north, away from the old, congested Dutch settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan to the pastoral areas of what is now the city’s grid of numbered streets.  Even this exodus proved inadequate in the face of ceaseless population growth.
In the years following the Revolution, a kinder, gentler city seemed out of reach.  

From Merchant Prince to Debtors' Prison
Born in 1759, John Pintard was orphaned shortly after birth and adopted by his uncle, Lewis Pintard, the colonies’ chief importer of Madeira wine and one of the so-called “merchant princes” of colonial New York City.  At age 10, John was sent to private school on Long Island and, a gifted scholar, entered Princeton’s class of 1776 at age 13.   When New York City was invaded by British regulars in 1776, Pintard joined a company commanded by his professor of Mathematics, and later joined his uncle as Assistant Agent for American Prisoners in New York City.  It was while performing this service that John first met Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others who would become friends and supporters throughout his career.
With the war over, John married 19-year-old Eliza Brasher (1765–1838), considered “among the greatest beauties of New York,”[3]  and whose family bound Pintard even more tightly to the Revolutionary elite.  Inheriting a legacy from his maternal grandfather, John entered the East India trade from an office on Wall Street.  By age 27 he owned several ships and was elected Alderman and then New York State Legislator.  He joined his friend, the future Mayor and Governor, DeWitt Clinton, in the Society of St. Tammany (or Tammany Hall, the emerging Democrat political machine). 
Pintard dined with President and Mrs. Washington at their home at No. 1 Cherry Street in the period when New York City was the nation’s capital.  There he encouraged the Washingtons to make and receive calls among their friends on New Year’s Day, an old Dutch custom, and one which the first couple enthusiastically embraced. [4]
Elizabeth (Eliza) and John Pintard
(John Ramage, New-York Historical Society)
John Pintard was described as animated, cheerful, and energetic.  He was well versed in the classics, law, history, and geography, a successful businessman, an avid collector of historical artifacts, and an intellectual.  He was also a supporter and more often an instigator of important social causes.
In May 1787, for example, he was appointed secretary of the Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire.  An enthusiast of infrastructure projects that enhanced national commerce, Pintard was named by New Jersey as one of five commissioners to erect bridges over the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers.  By 1789 he had established a manufacturing business on Vesey Street in Manhattan to provide spinning and weaving work for the poor.  He secured capital for the project from any number of friends in his now illustrious network, including John Alsop (a delegate to the Continental Convention), Samuel Bard (who founded the first medical school in New York), John Cruger (the mayor of New York City), Alexander Hamilton, Nicholas Fish (Revolutionary War veteran and father of a future New York governor), Baron von Steuben (Washington’s chief of staff and “father of the Continental Army”), John Jay (first Chief Justice of the United States), John and Isaac Roosevelt, and Peter Stuyvesant.  This list of donors was a virtual “Who’s Who” of the early republic. 
John Pintard lived an exemplary life, which makes his lapse of judgment in 1791 difficult to understand.  In December, the former assistant secretary of the treasury, William Duer (1743–1799), convinced Pintard and several other close associates to make massive purchases of government bonds and bank stocks, organizing a company that offered worthless deeds in the Northwest Territory (Ohio) and sold shares in a new “Million Bank.” 
By January 1792, a frenzy in bank stocks had encouraged the formation of two competitive banks.  By March, bank stock prices were falling and Duer began selling; on March 10 he suspended payment on all his debts, which totaled some $750,000.  Duer’s house of cards, in which Pintard had taken up residence, collapsed, triggering the Panic of 1792.  Dozens of merchants were ruined and everyone from shopkeepers to widows saw their life savings destroyed.  Duer himself was chased through the streets of Manhattan by an angry mob until he reached the safety of debtors’ prison.
Pintard had recklessly endorsed notes for nearly a million dollars on Duer’s behalf.  In the ensuing panic he, too, lost everything, including warehouses, ships, and his home.  Relocating to Newark, he was collared by creditors and forced into debtors’ prison for thirteen months.  Pintard made the most of a miserable situation by redecorating his cell, installing two mahogany writing desks,  and studying law.[5]  He was finally released when his friends in Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1800.
John Pintard never achieved his former level of commercial success or recaptured his old wealth.  Instead, he rose from the ashes of debtors’ prison with a renewed focus on a variety of social entrepreneurial initiatives.  One innovation would leave a lasting cultural legacy, but for that, he would need help.
Drawing of Clement Clarke Moore's "Old Chelsea Mansion
House" from Moore's St. Nicholas, the first color-illustrated
version of the poem, with illumination by Mary C. Ogden,
the poet's daughter, as a gift to her husband in 1855
Enter Clement Clarke Moore
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, New York City was growing at a clip of seven hundred new structures annually.[6]  Development plans provided for an expanded street grid that by 1811 envisioned something described as “Ninth Avenue” cutting through the middle of the ancient and enormous estate called Chelsea.  The owner of the estate was Clement Clarke Moore (1779–1863), a graduate of Columbia with a fondness for biblical studies and ancient languages.  Moore was ultraconservative and fantastically rich.  Chelsea alone was valued at $500,000, its footprint bounded by today’s Eighth and Tenth Avenues, and Nineteenth to Twenty-fourth Street.[7]  The estate was a pastoral hideaway and Moore’s protection from the disorder and grime of working-class Manhattan.
Despite his wealth and standing, however, Moore was no match for a city overflowing its banks.  A combination of eminent domain and army of saws, picks, and shovels carved Ninth Avenue through Moore’s beloved estate.  By 1821, Chelsea had become a neighborhood of Manhattan, with Moore’s home, once surrounded by meadows and orchards, now “near the corner of Ninth Avenue and Twenty-First Street.”
Moore eventually embraced the inevitable, adopting an orderly, lucrative plan for developing his lands.  Some of the lots were sold to wealthy New Yorkers.  Moore also donated sixty-six acres to the Episcopal diocese, which built the General Theological Seminary, where Moore himself taught from 1821 to 1850 as professor of Oriental languages and Greek literature.  John Pintard would become one of the seminary’s most successful and loyal fundraisers.
Violence in urban America could bubble up at any moment, but it had become common in the largest cities during the coldest weather months when waterways froze and employment rose, especially around Christmas and New Year’s.  By 1800, Philadelphia’s elite had come to loathe the Christmas season, when mobs of young working-class males roamed the streets into the early morning, singing, banging on drums and pots, and firing guns.  Individuals in these so-called “callithumpian bands” might be dressed in burlesque and were inevitably drunk.[8]  Their presence was ritualized—“a sanctioned opportunity for the urban poor to let off steam”[9]—but always in danger of escalating beyond noise and harmless pranks.
John Pintard, Clement Moore, and their fellow New Yorkers were susceptible to this same sort of callithumpian threat.  At New Year’s 1785, reports indicated “more than a thousand guns and pistols” were fired one night, all accompanied by “vociferation and uproar.”[10]  The city’s wealthier class was fully aware that, if out on the lawn there arose such a clatter—and they sprang from their beds to see what was the matter—it could well be a drunken mob tearing up their front posts or hedges, or breaking windows of the nearby warehouse just for the sport of it. 
All agreed that the “misrule” of the holiday season seemed to be worsening as the city grew.  Mobocracy stood in stark contrast to the quiet, genial visiting of friends on New Year’s Day in which Pintard had encouraged George and Martha Washington’s participation.
Innovating Santa Claus, American Peacemaker
Emerging from debtors’ prison in 1801, John Pintard set about supporting his family and resurrecting his career.  He was appointed Clerk to the Corporation of New York and City Inspector.  He was also elected Secretary of the Mutual Insurance Company, a position from which he and his family would derive a steady income for the next twenty years. 
In 1804, along with Mayor DeWitt Clinton, John Pintard founded the New-York Historical Society.  It was an effort to preserve not only the history of New York but all of America.  Calling again on his old investors for funding, Pintard established an office and began to recruit members and memorabilia.  Biographer James Grant Wilson noted:
It may be doubted if among his New York contemporaries, his equal could be found, for persuading people to part with their money, for Pintard possessed an intuitive knowledge of every man’s weak point, and the power of reaching it.  For organizing societies and meetings he had a perfect genius.  Few public institutions were established in his day without his aid and co-operation.  Remaining in the background himself, or only appearing in the modest role of Secretary, Pintard was in reality very generally the real leader of the movement.”[11] 
Despite losing his fortune, Pintard remained among the richest of Americans in terms of social capital.  He was a superb networker and fundraiser, a relentless champion of good causes, and fast becoming an expert in what would one day be called servant leadership, the ability to share power and elevate others according to the needs of an organization.
The founding of the New-York Historical Society was foreshadowed by three especially curious hand-written entries discovered by historians in John Pintard’s personal almanac from 1793.  The first two, for “Independence Day” and “Washington’s Birthday,” hinted at national holidays long before most Americans recognized or celebrated either.  It was a function of Pintard’s patriotism, energy, and foresight that both would become fixtures of the national calendar.[12] 
It was the third handwritten entry, however, that suggested the social innovation that Pintard would develop deliberately over time, one that would capture the imagination of New York City and ultimately the entire country.
A woodcut dedicated to St. Nicholas
(New-York Historical Society)
Historians now believe that the first time “St. Nicholas” was mentioned in America after the American Revolution was in Pintard’s 1793 almanac.  By 1804, Pintard and the fledgling New-York Historical Society had begun honoring St. Nicholas as the patron saint of the city, a way to reinforce the work of the Society and highlight New York’s rich heritage.  The date chosen for this newest holiday was December 6th, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death.  Pintard’s brilliance as a social engineer is seen here firsthand, providing another opportunity for New Yorkers to gather and celebrate in what seemed an increasingly divided city. 
But even more pressing may have been Pintard’s attempt—described by historian Stephen Nissenbaum in his Battle for Christmas—to “take back” a holiday season characterized by the disorder and violence of the mob.  The pleasant social visits of New Year’s Day were fast becoming an outdated, breathless sprint as New York City expanded and as old friends found themselves living farther and farther apart.  Pintard was seeking something more civil, domestic, and even sacred around which to focus the season.  St. Nicholas—and the coldest, most violent of seasons—seemed a perfect combination.
As was his style, John Pintard engaged on all fronts.  He proposed December 6th as a holiday, with the Historical Society leading in its annual celebration.  In 1807, New York City’s Common Council (with Pintard as Clerk) also recommended that December 25th be observed as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, and that all recreation and employment be suspended.[13] (The 25th would eventually replace December 6th as the preferred holiday.)  This recommendation supported the efforts of churches to schedule services to curb public drinking and disorder.
Enter Washington Irving
At the Historical Society’s January 1809 dinner, a toast was raised to St. Nicholas, hoping the “virtuous habits and simple manners of our Dutch ancestors not be lost in the luxuries and refinements of the present time.” [14]  At that same meeting, the name of Pintard’s young cousin, Washington Irving (1783-1859), was proposed for membership.  Pintard could not have known then, of course, but Irving was the missing piece of his innovative plan in cultural engineering.
Born the same week as the British ceasefire that ended the Revolutionary War, Washington Irving chafed under his domineering father, a former petty officer in the British Navy turned successful American merchant.  Washington grew close to his oldest brother William, seventeen years his senior and a friend of John Pintard.  During the 1798 outbreak of yellow fever in New York that killed two-thousand residents, Irving’s family sent the 15-year-old to stay with friends in Tarrytown, New York. This visit gave Irving his first exposure to the nearby Dutch village called Sleepy Hollow and to ghost stories about headless horsemen.  Irving would return to the Hudson River Valley throughout his life as a place of sanctuary and ultimately retirement.
A mezzotint print portrait of Washington
Irving by the British engraver Charles Turner
published in 1825
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Determined to avoid his father’s and brothers’ arduous lives as merchants, Irving preferred instead spending time with his brother Peter, attending the theater and relying on poor health, real or imagined, to escape work.  Peter managed and edited a small daily newspaper established in 1802 by Aaron Burr, and it was here that Irving’s first pieces were published and his talents displayed.
Washington Irving reluctantly studied law and passed the bar, but was a disinterested attorney. Instead, he continued to write.  On St. Nicholas Day, December 6, 1809, the 26-year-old published The History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, an invented Dutch historian.  The publication of this work turned out to be a seminal moment in American literature, turning Irving him from an uninspired lawyer into a celebrity author. 
Irving’s work painted the picture of an innocent, serene Dutch past—the very thing John Pintard was attempting to will upon the disorderly streets of New York with his new, cold-weather holidays.  And Irving did something more for Pintard, inventing stories of a “good St. Nicholas [who] came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children,”[15] and of families who hung up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve, “which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.”[16]
Frightened Awake by a Thundering Band
Almost overnight, Washington Irving introduced a genial, pipe-smoking St. Nicolas/Santa Claus that resonated with its American audience.  Biographer Andrew Burstein has written that “Christmas in America began, in a sense, when Knickerbocker’s folk took heart by invoking the blessings of ‘the great and good St. Nicholas.’”[17]  For the Historical Society's St. Nicholas Day dinner in 1810, John Pintard commissioned the publication of a broadside containing a picture of St. Nicholas bringing gifts for good children and punishment for bad ones.
It all took time—cultural engineering is one of the most difficult of all innovations—but Clement C. Moore joined the New-York Historical Society in 1813, apparently intrigued with the evolving St. Nicholas/Santa Claus being championed by Pintard and Irving.  Each year John Pintard insured that St. Nicholas was celebrated at the Historical Society.  Then Irving published his sensational Sketch Book in 1819, which included “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and Christmas scenes that now featured snow, yule logs, holly berries, Christmas carols and games, mince pies, and mugs of wassail. 
Visit from St. Nicholas,
Illus. by Louis Prang
(American Antiquarian Society)
In 1822, playing more the role of loving father than stern professor of ancient Greek, Moore penned for his children the wildly popular “A Visit from St. Nicholas (The Night before Christmas).”  Now, the clatter in the yard was no longer the mob tearing up bushes and fencing, but the sound of a friendly spirit bearing gifts.  In 1835, novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick included a Christmas tree in her fiction, borrowed from her observation of German families in Brooklyn.[18]  These were the foundations, along with Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol, that turned the focus from both St. Nicholas Day and New Year’s Day to make Christmas the centerpiece of the season.  It became a joyful, peaceful holiday centered around family and children that slowly took back the winter season from the mob.
We know from John Pintard’s letters that in 1820 his own household was frightened awake by a thundering band “banging drums, blowing fifes, proclaiming the season and frightening everyone in their path.”[19]  (Perhaps it is this story that Moore echoed in his poem two years later.)  But we also know that by the 1820s, New Yorkers were greeting one another with Christmas wishes, while stores on Broadway extended their hours to accommodate shoppers.  Santa Claus became a regular in New York newspapers.  Ever the marketer, John Pintard ran with Irving’s invented Dutch history, declaring in 1831 that Christmas was of “ancient usage” and that “St. Claas is too firmly riveted in this city ever to be forgotten.”[20]
In 1841 a merchant in Philadelphia featured Santa climbing a chimney, and in 1863 the political illustrator Thomas Nast began to sketch Santa in a way we would today recognize.  By the time our Centennial-era entrepreneurs were coming of age in 1897, the New York Sun could assure its readers that “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”
“Without Irving there would be no Santa Claus,”[21] historian Charles Jones wrote.  But if Irving planted and Moore fertilized, Pintard had scouted the field, prepared the ground and managed the harvest.  Together, Pintard, Irving, and Moore conjured an iconic symbol and beloved American holiday almost out of thin air.
John Pintard never lost his enthusiasm for social causes or for improving New York City.   His truly extraordinary work was done after he lost his fortune and was humbled by debtors’ prison.  He became the moving force behind the establishment of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, an effort to end public begging and intoxication.  He also helped to found the American Bible Society, was Secretary of the New York Chamber of Commerce, served as Secretary of the Sailors Snug Harbor, a home for aged sailors on Staten Island, and was President of the New York Bank for Savings. 
John Pintard and DeWitt Clinton, Erie Canal, 1825
(Wedding of the Waters, W. Grotz, wash drawing,
11 x13. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown,
New York, Museum Purchase, N0192.1978)
His zealous support for DeWitt Clinton’s Erie Canal initiative helped save the project in its darkest hour, and it was John Pintard who proudly carried the bottle of Lake Erie water that was emptied into the Atlantic Ocean on the day the Canal opened.   When Pintard wasn’t writing a persuasive letter that would unloose a charitable contribution, he translated the Book of Common Prayer into French for the Huguenot Church.  Indeed, for 50 years there were few historical, charitable, or educational initiatives in New York City which entrepreneur John Pintard did not touch and improve in the process.  But his lasting gift, the creation of an American Christmas, helped not only to tame the disorder and violence of the nation’s urban centers, but by the 1820s, create a week of frenzied shopping before Santa’s arrival that foreshadowed the dramatic rise of American consumerism a century later.

[1] Italics mine. Bruce, Jr., Dickson D., Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South, Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1979, 91.
[2] Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States [1839], John William Ward, ed., Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1961, 374–375.
[3] James Grant Wilson, John Pintard, Founder of the Historical Society: An Address Delivered Before the New-York Historical Society, December 3, 1901, New York: Printed for the Society, 1902, 17.
[4] James Grant Wilson, John Pintard, Founder of the Historical Society: An Address Delivered Before the New-York Historical Society, December 3, 1901, New York: Printed for the Society, 1902, 19.
[5] Fraser, Steve, “The Politics of Debt in America: From Debtor’s Prison to Debtor Nation,” January 29, 2013,
[6] Andrew Burstein, The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving, New York: Basic Books, 2007, Kindle, Amazon Digitial Services, Loc. 1418.
[7] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, Vintage: New York, 1996, 67.
[8] David, Susan G., “’Making Night Hideous’: Christmas Revelry and Public Order in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia,”American Quarterly, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 34, No. 2, 185-199,
[9] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, Vintage: New York, 1996, 51.
[10] Jones, Charles W., Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978, 350.
[11] James Grant Wilson, John Pintard, Founder of the Historical Society: An Address Delivered Before the New-York Historical Society, December 3, 1901, New York: Printed for the Society, 1902, 27.
[12] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, Vintage: New York, 1996, 55.
[13] Jones, Charles W., Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978, 350.
[14] Jones, Charles W., Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978, 341.
[15] Andrew Burstein, The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving, New York: Basic Books, 2007, Kindle, Amazon Digitial Services, Loc. 1597.
[16] Andrew Burstein, The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving, New York: Basic Books, 2007, Kindle, Amazon Digitial Services, Loc. 1842.
[17] Andrew Burstein, The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving, New York: Basic Books, 2007, Kindle, Amazon Digitial Services, Loc. 1842.
[18] Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 463.
[19] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, Vintage: New York, 1996, 49–50.
[20] Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 463.
[21] Jones, Charles W., Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978, 344.

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