The world’s first known department store Santa Claus owned his own store and paid his employees good wages. He gave them shares in the business, and even closed early four nights a week so they could spend time with their families.
His name was James Edgar, and the people who knew him in 19th-century Brockton, Mass., described him as big, jolly, generous – and a world-class show-off. He donned a Santa suit one December day in 1890 and greeted children in the aisles of his store. Soon he had to order a second Santa suit from his tailor and put his nephew in it to play Santa.
Years later, an old man remembered the magic of seeing James Edgar dressed up as the first department store Santa. Today, an actual department store might seem just as magical – especially if its employees were treated like James Edgar’s workers.
James Edgar had an old-fashioned business philosophy. “I have made a barrel of money, and I have spent it as freely as I have made it,” he once said. “Thousands of it goes back to the people from whom I made it, for I fully believe in that kind of an exchange.”
Department Store Santa
Though a shrewd and successful businessman, James Edgar probably had no idea what he started when he stepped onto the floor of The Boston Store wearing his new Santa Claus suit. He usually dressed up as a clown at Christmas and wandered the store after school let out. Sometimes he picked out a little girl to present with a new doll.
But he dressed in costume on the Fourth of July. He dressed up as George Washington or Uncle Sam or a Scottish Highlander for the thousands of children he invited to his annual Independence Day picnics.
He admitted he made himself ridiculous to many people. But he liked children and he thought they should have a chance to meet Santa.
Soon after his first gig as a department store Santa, parents and children lined up outside his store to see him. They came from Boston, from Providence, even from New York.
A small boy named Edward Lowery Pearson happened to visit The Boston Store on the day James Edgar dressed up as Santa. In 1976, then in his 90s, he described the experience to Modern Maturity magazine.
“You just can’t imagine what it was like,” Pearson said. “I remember walking down an aisle and, all of a sudden, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and then Santa came up and started talking to me.
“It was a dream come true.”
Within a decade, every major U.S. city had a department store Santa. Other department stores, like R.H. Macy’s and J.H. Parkinson’s, claimed they’d had a Santa earlier than 1890. But Santa historians note James Edgar was the first department store Santa with a known identity – and that he inspired major department stores to hire Santa next Christmas.
The Dry Goods Business
When James Edgar came up in business, the modern department store was just coming into existence.
Born in Scotland in 1843, he was apprenticed as a boy to a cloth merchant – then known as a linen draper. He worked long, grueling hours for $50 a year. He resolved that if he ever had ‘boys’ of his own, he’d treat them better than he’d been treated.
At the age of 22 he immigrated to St. John, New Brunswick, but didn’t think much of his prospects there. So he pawned his watch for a ticket to Boston and got a job for $12 a week – more than he’d ever made in his life. He decided to stay in America.
In Boston he worked at the Hogg, Brown & Taylor dry goods store. The term ‘dry goods’ comes from colonial New England merchants, many of whom were ship captains, who mainly imported calico and rum. They sold calico from one side of the store – the dry goods side – and rum from the wet goods side. “Wet goods” fell away, but dry goods stayed and evolved into the department store.
Edgar worked in Providence for several years, married a Canadian nurse named Annie McLeod. They had a daughter. In 1878 James Edgar and George W. Reynolds started The Boston Store (a common name back then) in the Town of Brockton.
Brockton, with a thriving shoe and leather industry would soon become a city. In 1883, Thomas Edison threw a switch in Brockton to have a three-wire underground electrical system, and the next year Brockton had the first electrically operated fire station.
James Edgar embraced the city’s spirit of progress, and put electric lights and cash registers into The Boston Store. He created the Edgar Layaway plan, in which money laid away earned 4 percent interest.
A Method in His Madness
It was an era of cutthroat competition, and Edgar believed in the power of advertising and promotion. He offered coupons and marked down dresses to 39 cents from $1.39. Once he threw pennies off the roof of the store.
Edgar insisted on treating the poorest customer with the same courtesy as the richest. He said he hired the best help available and paid them the best wages.
“I make it possible for them to own their own homes, even if I live in an upstairs tenement to save a few dollars,” he said.
He did live in a second-floor apartment in Brockton, but he also owned a summer home in nearby Lakeville. The Boston Store was doing well until it burned down in 1886. He rebuilt. When his partner died, he bought out his estate.
His employees didn’t leave until they died, and on Feb. 1, 1899 he made 25 of them stockholders in the store.
When he reached his 60s he still had plans to expand. He built a new, concrete department store in 1906. It had 149 clerks, 52,000 square feet and nearly 20,000 people came to shop on its busiest day. But he had suffered a stroke, which partially paralyzed him. Then in 1909 another stroke killed him.
Remembering James Edgar
Eighty seven years after that first Christmas, Edgar Pearson still remembered James Edgar.
“That was many, many Christmases ago,” Pearson said. “But I still say God bless James Edgar. He gave me a memory I have treasured all my life. … What a wonderful person he was.”
Today Brockton still remembers their first department store Santa. Children can still play in James Edgar Playground, donated to the city by his daughter Eva.
The city also celebrates the annual Santa Hat Challenge, where hundreds of people don red hats to pay tribute to Edgar. On Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, the city will hold the Reading of James Edgar Story and Tree Lighting ceremony at the War Memorial Building.
With thanks to Department store Santas owe paychecks to Col. Jim Edgar, Bob Cubie, Brockton Enterprise and Santa Claus aka James Edgar by Robert A. Kane. This story was updated in 2020.