St. Nicholas Reimagined by the Avantgarde

There was a demand for equal time for St. Nicholas this week to balance the previous coverage on Santa.  This Sunday is the feast of St. Nicholas, so it’s the time to pay tribute to Western civilization’s other major dispenser of gifts to the naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is not exactly a style icon in that schlumfpy red suit and elf hat trimmed with fur. Okay, the suit makes sense for anyone whose job description requires him to ride around the world in an open sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer on a freezing winter night.  Warm, comfortable, and casual, but not hot by any stretch of any fashionista’s imagination…

And Saint Nicholas?  Once upon a time he didn’t think fashion mattered, as those tattersall check pants under the bishop’s robe scream loud and clear.  Not a good look, as Heidi Klumm would say.   A one-off Fendi sack might help.  And Knecht Ruprecht so needs to lose those boots.


Felix Timmermans, St. Nicholas in Trouble. Translated from the German by Amy Flashner. Illustrated by Else Wenz-Vietor (New York: Harper & Brothers, ca. 1932) Cotsen 14312.

St. Nicholas got it through his head that he had to get serious about the brand and hire some image consulting firms.  Here are two options from the Wiener Werkstatte that include makeovers for Krampus.  Pretty sharp accessories!


Dita Moser. Kalendar 1908 (Vienna: Weiner Werkstatte, 1907) Cotsen 52825.

diveky st nicholas krampus

St. Nicholas and Krampus post card by Jozsef von Diveky ca. 1915. Reproduced courtesy of Getty Images.

Then there is Lou Loeber’s radically stripped down ensemble, with Zwaert Pieter rockin’  stripes, from Nieuwe Beelding.   Glad the choice isn’t up to me.  All three work!


S. Franke. Gouden vlinders. Illustrated by Lou Loeber (Blaricum: de Waelburgh, 1927) Cotsen 6085.

Made for Friends: A Manuscript Deck of Cards Featuring Potter’s Hunca Munca and Princess Margaret

Some children are lucky enough to know an adult with the skills to make them special toys and games.  Sometimes those objects survive against the odds are offered to lucky curators. This little set of Schwarzer Peter cards (a Continental variation on Old Maid)  is just one such find.    It has twenty-seven instead of the usual fifty-two cards, but it seems to be complete because it fits perfectly in the blue box.  The lid has an illustrated title label in German that reads in English: “This game of Black Peter was painted for her dear friends Ernst and Anneliese Grossenbacher in St. Gall.”  It is signed Gertrud Lendorff, who just might be the Swiss art historian from Basel (1900-1981).

The cards cannot be earlier than the 1930s: one of the pair with the Union Jack in the upper left hand corners shows “Margaret Rose aus England.”  Margaret Rose, a little girl in a blue coat and hat with a green scarf, must be the late Princess Margaret (1930-2002), Queen Elizabeth II’s sister.


A famous character from children’s books also makes an appearance here: Beatrix Potter’s Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, identified only as “nach einem Englischen Kinderbuch,” that is, “from an English children’s book.”  It’s amusing that the illustrations of Hunca Munca  were redrawn from ones where this bad little mouse was behaving well relatively well.  My guess is that  little Grossenbachers for whom Lendorff made the cards might have been reading The Tale of Two Bad Mice in German translation.  But perhaps Lendorff was introducing them to a childhood favorite of her own. The cards don’t provide any clues about the circumstances in which they were made or how they were received, but they are testimony to Potter’s appeal outside her homeland.

swiss cards_cover

Most of the cards illustrate toys made of porcelain, clay, celluloid, and wood, such as Hansli and the matryoshka doll Tatyiana and her five daughters below.

swiss_cards_babtanddollsOne thing we find unacceptable today is Lendorff’s inclusion of toys that perpetuate offensive stereotypes.  The title label depicts a black baby doll and Lendorff’s model might have been a Heubach bisque character doll.  She redrew the same doll on the card with the caption “Der Schwarze Peterli! Nicht der Schwarze Peter!” [The little Black Peter! Not the Black Peter!].  It is an opprobrious caricature with unnaturally bright red lips.  But unlike some Heubach black baby dolls, it wears what looks like a knitted onesie instead of some spurious form of “native dress.”

covertitle The “Schwarzer Peter”—that is, “Black Peter”–mentioned on the title label is the name that the Old Maid card goes by in German, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Finnish.  The card with Black Peter is the hot potato that all the players try to get rid of as quickly as possible so it won’t be in their hands at the end of the game.  In this particular set, the Black Peter is depicted offensively as a black rag doll (possibly inspired by Florence Upton’s famous character, the Golliwog) instead of the more usual chimney sweep.

inprocess item 6541473

The Black Peter card in the manuscript Schwarzer Peter deck. Dieses spiel vom schwarzen Peter malte für ihre lieben St. Galler Freunde Ernst u. Anneliese Grossenbacher. [Switzerland?, [not before 1930?] (Cotsen)

In spite of the unpleasant images, this card set is a fascinating addition to Cotsen’s collection of manuscripts made for children over the last three hundred years..

See more Beatrix Potter at the Cotsen virtual exhibitions page