December 9, 2014 by randberg
The other day I was re-watching an old episode of one of my favorite TV programs, the frequently astounding Antiques Roadshow on PBS. I say astounding because often times the viewer (and even the owner of the item) are shocked to learn the actual value (or in some cases, the lack of value) of a treasured family heirloom. If we are all being honest with ourselves, we all have had fleeting fantasies that grandma and grandpa’s trunk in the attic contains a rare gem of an item that no one remembered was even there. After we’ve pried open the trunk (and if it isn’t empty), we look through the items for that “one thing” that will make headline news. It does happen from time to time; a story airs at the end of the newscast telling how someone found a Picasso in their attic or a copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden behind a painting of dogs playing poker.
This particular episode of Antiques Roadshow featured a grand-daughter of Virginia O’Hanlon, the eight-year old little girl who in 1897 wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking about the status of Santa Claus. The reply by editor Francis P. Church which started with “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” is now the stuff of legends. After relating the history of how she came into possession of the letter, the grand-daughter was tremendously surprised to learn that an impromptu group of appraisers had valued the letter at somewhere between $20,000 to $30,000. An updated appraisal of the letter in 2012 set the value of this letter as high as $50,000!
Seeing this episode anew sparked a fun conversation with myself: “What if we could access Santa Claus’s archives?” Imagine for a second all the potential types of records that Santa has kept and how we as archivists and special collections librarians could make this information available. Addresses on the envelopes which contained many heartfelt wishes for gifts would be a valuable genealogy resource just for starters. Where did Uncle Jimmy live when he was eight years old? From the collection of envelopes we would know immediately. Think of the statistical information that could be gleaned from the records. Exactly how many G.I. Joes were asked for in 1964? Which was more popular in 1967—Barbie or Mrs. Beasley, Buffy’s doll from Family Affair? Statisticians could run amok for years analyzing the data!
The information would also be important for social scientists as well. Which areas of the country asked for certain items? Where there isolated pockets of children asking for an Etch-A-Sketch and what, if anything, did that tell us about ourselves? Was there any pattern that could be discerned by the color choices of bicycles and other peddle toys? Did the number of siblings a child had have any impact on the number of toys asked for? Were there any children who actually asked Santa to bring them argyle socks for Christmas and what, if anything, might be wrong with them?
Think about Santa’s archives in terms of the records that would need to be gathered just to keep track of all the elf helpers. Assuming the elves were paid, how much did they earn per hour? Did they earn sick time or vacation time? When did Santa begin offering health insurance? In economic down times, like the Great Depression, did unemployed elves collect “elfare” benefits?
Logistics experts would give anything to analyze the data that Santa kept on his production, warehousing, and distribution methods. How many items could be produced in a day? How did Santa keep track of the items in his warehouse? Exactly how does Santa cover the entire world in one night? UPS and FedEx would pay dearly to learn Santa’s secrets! Santa could probably learn a thing or two from private industry as well. I would imagine that Santa is closely monitoring Amazon’s experiments with drones delivering packages to individual homes. Santa’s reindeer are likely concerned about their future employment should the whole drone thing take off!
Regardless of all the types of records that Santa has generated over the years, there is one thing that is a certainty. The records pertaining to all the boys and girls in the world have been and will always be kept with one sure-fire cataloging method—the “good” list and the “bad” list.