Uncle Sam? Santa Claus? Lady Columbia? The Republican Elephant? The Democratic Donkey? All of these images of America have the same source, Thomas Nast, cartoonist extraordinaire (and functional illiterate) for Harper’s Weekly.
Born into a family of German immigrants, Nast lived in New York City. His mother enrolled him in public school, but he did not learn how to read or write, and was finally asked to leave when he was twelve.At that point, he began studying at the National Academy of Design. Financial hardship forced him to leave art school three years later. It was difficult for a fifteen-year old to find employment of any kind, then as now, and the fact that Nast could not read or write did not increase his chances of being hired. In addition, he was short and stout, so getting a laboring job was not feasible either.
He knew what he wanted to do–draw! He applied to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, but he was unable to support himself during the two-to-three apprenticeship that artists needed to undergo at that time. Nevertheless, Nast continued to apply at Leslie’s.
Usually the receptionist was able to get young Mr. Nast to turn around and leave her office, but one day he slipped her clutches and marched into the office of Frank Leslie himself. Nast’s audacious request for a job as an illustrator was met head on: Leslie gave the boy an “assignment.” He was to go downtown to the Christopher Street Ferry in lower Manhattan and draw sketches of the crowds boarding the ferry.
To Leslie’s surprise, Nast arrived the next morning with a completed drawing and a small portfolio of sketches. Frank Leslie hired Thomas Nast immediately, and Nast joined Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as a draftsman. Nast was fifteen years old when his professional newspaper career began.
By 1858, the country suffered a minor recession, but New York City was hit very hard. Frank Leslie’s was laying off staff members, and Nast was one of them. Initially the boy found work in an art studio, but newspaper ink was already in his blood. In 1859 he tried his hand at a political cartoon satirizing the local New York police department scandal. He showed his work to the publisher of Harper’s Weekly, where it was accepted and published. On March 19, 1859, his first drawings appeared in Harper’s.
He drew intermittently for Harper’s from 1859-1860. At that point, another paper, the New York Illustrated News, offered to hire him at twice what he had made at Harper’s. The catch was that he had to go to Europe to cover a boxing match in England. Some catch! Suddenly Nast was a commodity. He now commanded a larger salary and was given the chance to travel the world. He quickly gave notice at Harper’s.
Things were fine in England at first, but then there were problems. For a short time Nast was paid his salary on a regular basis, in real money. Then he began receiving script, or IOUs. He never did collect his full salary, and he became stranded in London. While there, he had become interested in Garibaldi’s military efforts to unify Italy. He applied for a job as a “Special Correspondent” for the London Illustrated News, and was sent to Italy for several months. He also continued to send work back to Harper’s Weekly, and finally saved enough money to return to New York in 1862.
The Civil War had already begun. Nast considered enlisting, but friends assured him that he could do more for the Union by covering the war as an illustrator. Nast, although concerned about having left Harper’s just two years earlier, returned to them to seek employment. Harper’s rehired him.
Only twenty-two at the time, Nast began his work as an illustrator in earnest with his cartoon “Peace,” directed against those in the North who opposed the prosecution of the American Civil War. Although not a “Special” in the same sense that others such as Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes were, Nast visited camps, battlefields and hospitals. He also attended political meetings concerning the War, including those of the Sanitary Commission. He drew battlefield images in border and southern states, and forcefully illustrated, with biting satire, the political issues of the war. Nast did fifty-five signed engravings for Harper’s between 1862 and 1865.
Any collection of Nast’s work will contain his complex double-page illustrations of soldiers in camp, soldiers in the hospital, the families who missed and loved them, and either several panels of those who were politically trying to undermine the war effort, or those who were doing all that could be done to support it. Sad, lonely families supporting the men who were at the battle was a particularly galvanizing image, especially when Copperhead politicians were selling them out. Nast’s work attracted great attention, and Thomas Nast was called, “our best recruiting sergeant” by President Lincoln.
Nast supported Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation whole-heartedly, advocating abolition and opposing segregation. After the War, he regularly and often drew editorial cartoons deploring the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Another of Nast’s famous cartoons is entitled, “Worse Than Slavery.” The center panel shows a black family holding their dead child as the schoolhouse is destroyed by arson. In side panels, members of the KKK and the White League shake hands. Both were paramilitary white supremacy groups that began during Reconstruction in the South.
As bitter and pointed as much of his work was, Nast’s sentimental side was also evident. Each Christmas he drew a large, multi-paneled two-pager for Harper’s, complete with charming children whose visions of Santa and sugar plums danced in heads crowned with soft curls. When he began drawing his holiday illustrations, the faithful wife, ever mindful of her duties as a soldier’s bride, was usually depicted as wishing her husband were home to share this Christmas with his family.
As the war continued, often the husband had returned, either ill or maimed, or both. He sits in his chair, a bitter look on his face, wondering how he is going to keep Christmas merry now that he has lost a leg.
After the Civil War ended, Christmas lightened up quite a bit. Nast’s image of the ‘jolly old elf” is the one most usually associated with Santa Claus. Nast was also the first to establish the “fact” that Santa lived at the North Pole. This made Santa a citizen of the world, not identified with any country in particular.
Inspired by Clement Moore’s poem “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas,” Thomas Nast was the first to show Santa filling stockings, smoking a pipe, and driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Even the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, originally of Celtic origin, was brought to the pages of Harper’s by Thomas Nast.
His cartoons continued to impact New York politics. He is credited with helping to elect former Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant to the Presidency. He is also credited with bringing down the Irish political faction, known as Tammany Hall, under the corrupt direction of “Boss” William Marcy Tweed. Tweed is even quoted as telling Nast at one point: Let’s stop those damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see pictures.
A little over a year of serious editorial cartooning was what it took Thomas Nast to put a stop to Tweed, have him arrested, and put behind bars.
As charming as Santa is, and as brave as Nash must have been to go up against Boss Tweed’s political power, Thomas Nast had his share of issues. As late as 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that the New Jersey Hall of Fame was unsure about including Thomas Nast among its numbers. This was based on Nast’s unfortunate stereotypical cartoons portraying New York Irish immigrants as a drunken, violent people. Despite championing civil rights early in his career, he later began to portray similar racist stereotypes of African Americans.
By 1884, Harper’s Weekly had changed ownership. This resulted in a change in editorial policy. As a result, the 1984 Christmas illustrations were Nast’s last ones for Harper’s. He continued to paint and illustrate, and attempted to start a magazine on his own. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt offered him a post as ambassador to Ecuador. Six months later Thomas Nast was dead from yellow fever.
His body was returned to the United States, where it was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. Thomas Nast’s images of America continue to live on.