Published in 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”—refers to Santa as “a jolly old elf,” but there is no mention of other elves. Louisa May Alcott might have been the first to mention Santa’s helpers, in an unpublished story collection called Christmas Elves in 1855, but few details of the lost work are known. In 1857, Harper’s Weekly published the poem “The Wonders of Santa Claus” that specifically referred to elves helping Santa create all the gifts he delivers to good children during the holidays. The 1873 Christmas issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular magazine, pictured Santa Claus, surrounded by elves and toys, preparing for the big day.
In the 20th century, Norman Rockwell, Haddon Sundblom, and other artists featured elves in some of their popular seasonal illustrations. Holiday Elves were pictured as tiny, pointy-eared, jolly creatures, usually dressed in stocking caps and festive outfits and always busy with chores for Santa—just as we envision them today.