W.W. Denslow’s The Night Before Christmas (1902)

Almost everyone is familiar with the image of St. Nick in Thomas Nast’s illustrations for The Night Before Christmas.  First published in 1823, Nast’s illustrations appeared in 1863.  Several years later, in 1902, a different illustrator “tried his hand” with illustrating the much beloved poem.

W. W. Denslow’s name will be familiar to L. Frank Baum fans.  Denslow is responsible for the illustrations in Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Born in Philadelphia in 1856, William Wallace Denslow studied art in New York City at the Cooper Union Institute and the National Academy of Design. As a young man, he was an office boy for a magazine publishing company.  For years, he took odd jobs, painting ads on barns, illustrating atlases, drew prints of local landmarks, and lecturing on art history.  In 1882, he opened a studio in New York, drawing magazine illustrations and designing theatre costumes.

In 1884, Denslow moved to Chicago where he worked for the Chicago Herald and illustrated books, including Dollars and Sense by P. T. Barnum. After a brief stint in Colorado, Denslow moved to San Francisco where his style was influenced by the Japanese Tokumgawa (or Floating World) print, which was then an international fad. In 1893, Denslow returned to Chicago where he quickly became one of the most important Midwestern illustrators of the day. It was in Chicago where he met and began working with L. Frank Baum. In 1899 Denslow and Baum collaborated on their first book, which was an instant success. A year later, Denslow illustrated Baum's soon-to-be-famous The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Subsequently, Denslow and Baum collaborated on a stage version of the Wizard and another book. Soon after, however, personal differences drove them to seek other partners. In 1903, he illustrated Denslow's Night Before Christmas.

Denslow is credited with being the first American to create picture books in the aesthetic tradition of English illustrators Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, and the first to combine color with a sense of design. During his lifetime, Denslow wrote and illustrated four books, one of which was a series of 18 booklets called Denslow's Picture Books. He also wrote and illustrated a series of newspaper stories and illustrated six works by other authors. His trademark was a Japanese-inspired, stylized seahorse monogram that he appended to his work. This monogram earned Denslow the nickname "Hippocampus Den." In 1968, The Wizard of Oz won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.

The entire contents of Denslow’s Night Before Christmas is available on the de Grummond Digital Collections page.  See the entire book, including the introduction by Grace Duffie Boylan, which tells the story of the Clement Clarke Moore poem.  Boylan states, “All that is good survives.  And so the little people of all the time to come may hear in their smiling, yule tide dreams, the patter of the tiny, hurrying hoofs upon the roof and the jolly and significant voice of the old saint calling, ‘Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night.’”

The design of the book is clearly influenced by Denslow’s poster-making past.  The illustrations give an entirely different flavor to the well-known piece.  For more information on this item, contact Ellen Ruffin at  or 601.266.6543. To see more Items of the Month, click here.

Text by Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection