It’s bonus season, and while many in the junk bond market should expect coal in their stocking, the rest of Wall Street remains hopeful that Santa Claus remembers them this year. Given the Fed’s rate hike, though, more than a few financiers are losing faith.
It would help, perhaps, if Wall Street had a direct line to Santa Claus. Once upon a time, it did. For much of the 19th century, Santa Claus had a branch office at No. 12 Wall Street. This was the “Saint Nicholas Bank,” established in 1853 and capitalized at $500,000.
The origins of the Saint Nicholas Bank are a bit murky. Aside from the fact that it built a safe that Bankers’ Magazine described in 1854 as “the largest in the United States, if not the world,” the new institution attracted very little notice.
At this time, state-chartered banks in the United States issued their own currency, in denominations and designs of their choice. This system of private money creation flourished before the Civil War, with nearly 2,000 banks printing their own currency by the end of the 1850s.
The Saint Nicholas Bank printed money illustrated with – who else? – Santa Claus. The $1 and $3 bills showed Santa popping out of the fireplace to tend to children’s stockings. The big man was depicted in various poses in his reindeer-drawn sleigh on the $2, $5, and $10. The $20 and $50 showed the jolly old elf popping out of another fireplace, with sleeping children tucked into a bed a few feet away. (The rarely seen $100 note, by contrast, showed the U.S. Capitol building – so much for holiday cheer).
Still, why would Santa Claus adorn a bank note? The answer lies with the deeper history of New York City business and finance, and possibly, the man who would loom the largest over the bank’s reputation.
The very distant ancestor of Santa Claus was the real-life Saint Nicholas, for whom the bank was undoubtedly named. Born in what is now Turkey, the original Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors thanks to his alleged ability to calm storms. His benevolence toward children made him the patron saint of that set, too.