Did Isaac Doolittle III, who was baptized at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, and was the grandson of Trinity’s founding Warden, Isaac Doolittle, invent Santa Claus? No, but in 1821, he drew illustrations for the poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, with images of the bearded gift giver dressed in red. It was the first illustration of the soon to be popular legendary figure. His “Santeclaus” arrives from the sky on rooftops on a sleigh pulled by a reindeer, and puts presents for good children in stockings, but leaves “a long, black, birchen rod” (instead of coal) to be used by parents on naughty children. With a few changes in beard color and weight, Doolittle’s image of the gift-giving sleight-riding bearded man became the iconic image of Santa Clause.
The entire eight page book of poetry with illustrations can be viewed in the slideshow below, or you can view a copy of the book digitized by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The History of Santa Claus
The publication of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, is generally credited with launching the nineteenth-century idea of Santa Claus, and making Christmas into a gift-giving holiday. Published anonymously in 1823, it was written by Clement Clarke Moore, the son of the Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Moore of New York, and American Professor of Divinity at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in New York City. It became widely popular, and has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American”.
However, there was a work published two years earlier in 1821 that likely inspired Moore’s popular poem. The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve was published as a booklet about “Santaclaus” on a reindeer-pulled sleight, arriving on a rooftop, and bringing children presents if they were good for their stockings, and a birch whipping rod if they were not. It contained Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, an anonymous poem describing Santeclaus on a reindeer pulled airbourn sleigh, bringing presents to children. A Visit from St. Nicholas mentions Saint Nicholas four times, including in the title, but doesn’t mention Santa Claus, or Santeclaus, even once.
It contained a eight stanza poem with eight hand colored engravings, and cost was 25 cents. The author of the poem was the Presbyterian minister Rev. Arthur J. Stansbury. Isaac Doolittle and William Armand Barnet were the lithographers, and William Gilley was the publisher. While it is not known who drew the pictures, Doolittle is listed before Barnet on the title page, and he was an artist as well as an inventor and mechanic; there is a comic cartoon of Doolittle at work painting (see below), so it most likely was Doolittle. Arthur J. Stansbury soon abandoned the ministry for a career as a congressional reporter. This may account for the oddity of a Presbyterian minister writing the first poem on this quasi-pagan quasi-Catholic legendary character
“The Children’s Friend” is also famous for being the first known use of lithography (printing images from wax drawn on limestone) in America.
The publisher was William Gilley (1785-1830). He was a friend and neighbor of Clement C. Moore, and a publisher for the Episcopal Church of New York, including the Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopal Psalter. He may have suggested to Moore that he write a more Episcopal friendly (and child friendly) version.
So did Isaac the son of Isaac the son of Warden Isaac Doolittle invent “Santeclaus”? Perhaps not, as stories of the old gift giver with the Dutch name Sinterklaas were apparently common in New York around 1820, a state with still a strong Dutch-heritage population. But Doolittle seems to have been the first to illustrate the character, and the first to use the lithographic process to print the story. And the first to use Stanteclause in print, which has now our Santa Claus. For more on this doubly seminal first Santa Claus poem with it wonderful colorized lithography, see Santa Claus Exposed from the American Antiquarian Society.
The First Christmas in Connecticut
Trinity’s celebration of Christmas goes back almost to its founding. The Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson was assigned as missionary-priest of a very large parish in 1723. The only Church of England parish in all of Connecticut, it stretched from Norwalk to Guildford and included all the shore towns between, as well as the adjacent the inland villages from Wallingford down to Wilton.
He built the first Anglican church, Christ Church Stafford, the next year, and opened it on Christmas Day. As the Congregationalists did not celebrate holidays not mentioned in scripture (except Thanksgiving), It was the first time Christmas was celebrated in Connecticut.
The Extraordinary Mr. Isaac Doolittle the First
It took thirty years, but Dr. Johnson eventually built the first Trinity church building in New Haven. In 1750 he appointed Isaac Doolittle and Enos Alling as Wardens to a parish of 24 families. They built the first Trinity Church and opened it in June of 1753.
Isaac Doolittle was “ingenious inventor” as well as a wealthy silversmith, brass foundry owner and bell maker, clock maker, instrument maker, and engraver. He was also Trinity’s first known Warden, who oversaw the construction of the First Trinity Church in 1752-1753. He designed and manufactured the first printing press in America, made of mahogany, and said to be superior to those imported from England. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he opened a gunpowder mill in Westville. He was also placed in charge of New Haven’s beacon-alarm system and port inspection, and sent by the state government to prospect for the scare resource of lead. When a Yale student named David Bushnell approached him with an idea for an underwater vessel to attack ships, he designed and built the brass and moving parts of the Turtle — the He likely funded it, and provided the gunpowder and lead basalt. As Rev. Hubbard of Trinity Church New Haven was officially neutral, the patriotic Doolittle left his position of Warden in 1777 for the duration of the war, and only resumed his position in 1785.
Isaac Doolitte’s son, Isaac Doolittle II, also became a clock maker, taking over his father’s shop on Chapel Street.
Mr. Isaac Doolittle the Third
Isaac Doolittle III, (1783–1852) was baptized at his grandfather’s Trinity Church on November 7, 1783. Like his grandfather, he was an artist, patriot, printer, engraver, and engineer, who illustrated books, forged metal, and invented mechanical devices.
While traveling in Europe, he was detained in France in 1809 and lived there for more than a decade. During his sojourn in Paris he was befriended by American diplomats, learned French, and joined the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. He left Europe carrying a packet of American consular dispatches in February 1813 at the height of the War of 1812. He was captured by a British Warship and held for three months. He was successful in hiding the dispatches, and eventually delivered them to Thomas Jefferson. Returning to France, he was a clerk in the Paris embassy, but failed to obtain a diplomatic post. He then he moved to New York City, where he and William Armand Barnet introduced lithography into America with the publication of The Children’s Friend and other illustrated books, This comic sketch by Doolittle of himself as a painter dates from about 1820.
From the end of 1822 to about 1846, he was manager of the Bennington Iron-Works in Vermont. He also wrote articles the American Journal of Science and Arts and obtained at least three patents.
Doolittle died in Rochester, New York, in 1852. The following extracts are from his obituary, published in New Haven on April 26, 1852.
“Mr. Doolittle died on Saturday. Mr. D. was a native of Connecticut, though a considerable part of his active life was spent in France.— He was a gentleman of more than ordinary information and general intelligence. His uprightness and integrity of character commanded the respect of all who knew him, while the qualities of his head won their warm regard. His mind was active and well informed in mathematics and in natural science. Early in life and during the war between France and England he was made prisoner of war, and carried to France. Instead of idling away his hours, he rose above the surrounding evils, and studied the French language of which he became an expert. His family have a volume published by him in French before 1821, upon steam as applied to navigation. He had inventive faculties of unusual versatility, which suggested various improvements in machinery and secured him a variety of patents. It is believed that he introduced Lithography into this country and worked off the first sheets in the city of New York.
He was not of that class who satisfy themselves in witnessing their private success. He was ready to forget self at the suggestion of any public improvement. . . . Though prosperity may surround such men for a time, they are not likely to retain it long. But they are sure to gain what is still better and what they value higher — warm hearts and a blessed