When the postal service began releasing children’s letters to Santa Claus to the public, John Gluck, a customs agent with a dubious resume, a list of high-profile contacts, and an outsized Christmas spirit, came forward to answer them — all of them.
John Gluck: publicity man
With the rise of newspapers, publicity was becoming a major industry and a fact of everyday life. Though Gluck had seen modest success in running the family customs business he had inherited, he always aspired to do more and make a name for himself. Publicity provided that chance.
He was hired to promote the makeover of the Washington Market, which was once the hub of Christmas life in NYC before it fell into disrepair. Despite a shooting over poultry price fixing during the makeover, the campaign was a major success.
Later, he promoted a bullfight at Coney Island, which ended in disaster and humiliation.
He was looking for another opportunity to make his mark. So, when the post office decided to release children’s letters to Santa Claus in 1911, he mulled the idea over. It would be fitting for Gluck, who was born on Christmas Day and loved children, though he was a bachelor with none of his own.
In 1913, after the bullfight fiasco, he decided to take up the challenge. And so began “The Santa Claus Association,” with Gluck at the helm as “Santa’s Secretary,” as the newspapers called him. Operating out of the back of a restaurant, and with a group of volunteers, he executed an elaborate system for verifying, documenting, de-duplicating, and prioritizing the letters. All the while, the post office was taking note. The Association had to do everything right, or risk getting shut down.
The Santa Claus Association is born
Drawing from his list of business contacts, he sent letters to potential donors, asking if they’d like to reply to one or more letters. The Association was not operating as a charity, just as a middle man. No money came in to the Association. Gifts were sent straight to recipients. However, Gluck did seek donations to help with administrative costs, like stamps and stationery. The first year required about $1,200.
As well-planned as his system was, there were problems. They became victims of their own success when early positive publicity led to an influx of demand, as when a entire school sent letters. Also, It was difficult to manage an all-volunteer crew. And a single letter usually represented multiple children, making it harder to find donors. And finally, some well meaning — but confused — donors sent gifts directly to the Association, meaning they’d have to deliver them to recipients themselves.
Gun-toting boy scouts to the rescue
Help arrived for this last problem from an unlikely source. Edwin McAlpin of The United States Boy Scout (USBS) contacted Gluck about letting the scouts help with deliveries. The USBS, founded by William Randolph Hearst after rival publisher William Boyce founded Boy Scouts of America, allowed its scouts to take rifles on their expeditions. In 1912, a scout in uniform shot and killed a boy with a rifle after a scout function.
McAlpin was eager to untarnish the USBS’s image, and helping the Association earned them positive press. The relationship worked so well that Gluck became an official fundraiser for the USBS, taking a 40% cut of every dollar he raised.
And unprecedented success
As the season wore on, more positive press led to a last-minute crush of requests, and more gifts erroneously arriving at the Association. Some automakers came to the rescue, lending vehicles to help volunteers make deliveries. In the end, with just four weeks, a lean staff and limited budget, the Association helped 17,000 children for the 1913 Christmas season. But more than that, Gluck had reinvented himself as a media savvy publicity man and efficiency expert. Emboldened by this position, he sought to take the Santa Claus Association to new heights, and climb his way up to the innermost circles of New York City’s wealthy and powerful.
- The Santa Claus Man book by Alex Palmer
- The Smithsonian’s Postal Museum
- My Dear Santa main page at Christmas Past
Music in this episode
- “An Opus in A Flat” — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
- “Cases to Rest” — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
- “Nesting” — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
- “Thannoid” — Blue Dot Sessions, via Free Music Archive
- “Holiday Gift” — Kai Engel, via Free Music Archive
- “The Temperature of the Air on the Bow of the Kaleetan” — Chris Zabriskie, via Free Music Archive
- “Covert Affair” — Kevin MacLeod, via Incompetech
- “Wish Background” — Kevin MacLeod, via Incompetech
- “Revelation” — Dave Depper, via Needledrop