4. Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast was an American caricaturist, illustrator, and painter. He was born in the barracks of Landau, Germany (now in Rhineland-Palatinate) on September 28, 1840, the last child of Appolonia Abriss and Joseph Thomas Nast, a trobonist in teh Bavarian 9th regiment band. He had a sister named Andie, and two other siblings died before he was born.

His father held political convictions that put him at odds with the Bavarian government. In 1846, Joseph Nast left Landau, enlisting first on a French man-of-war and subsequently on an American ship. He sent his wife and children to New York City, and at the end of his enlistment in 1849 or 1850 he joined them there.

Nast attended school in New York City from the age of six to fourteen. He did poorly at his lessons, but his passion for drawing was apparent from an early age. In 1854, he was enrolled for about a year of study with Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann, and then at the school of the National Academy of Design.

In 1856, he started working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. to depict one of the major sporting events of the era, the prize fight between the American John C. Heenan and the English Thomas Sayers sponsored by George Wilkes, publisher of Wilkes' Spirit of the Times. In February 1860, as artist correspondent for The Illustrated London News, he joined the Italian general and politician, Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy. Nast's cartoons and articles about the Garibaldi military campaign to unify Italy were published in English, French, and American papers. His drawings appeared for the first time in Harper's Weekly on March 19, 1859, when he illustrated a report exposing police corruption.

Nast's self-portrait
In February 1861, he arrived back in New York and in September of that year, he married Sarah Edwards, whom he had met two years earlier. By the summer of 1862 his freelance work had evolved into a position with Harper's Weekly where he stayed until 1886. He freelanced for a variety of magazines and in September 1892 he established Nast's Weekly, which lasted less than six months.

In 1902 he accepted President Theodore Roosevelt's appointment to serve as consul general to Ecuador. After only six months abroad, he died of yellow fever on December 7, 1902. His body was returned to the United States, where he was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York, where Fiorello La Guardia is also buried.

Nast is best known for his clever and forceful political and personal cartoons and is considered to be the "Father of the American Cartoon". His cartoons were instrumental in breaking the corrupt Democratic Representative "Boss" Tweed and the Tammany Hall Democratic party political machine. It was Nast who created the tiger, the elephant, and the donkey as political symbols of Tammany Hall, the Republican party, and the Democratic party. Nast was also an illustrator of note and a painter in oil. He died at Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he was American consul general.Among his notable works were the creation of the modern version of Santa Claus and the political symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party. Contrary to popular belief, Nast did not create Uncle Sam (the male personification of the American people), Columbia (the female personification of American values), or the Democratic donkey, though he did popularize these symbols through his artwork.

Albert Boime argues that:

"As a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast wielded more influence than any other artist of the 19th century. He not only enthralled a vast audience with boldness and wit, but swayed it time and again to his personal position on the strength of his visual imagination. Both Lincoln and Grant acknowledged his effectiveness in their behalf, and as a crusading civil reformer he helped destroy the corrupt Tweed Ring that swindled New York City of millions of dollars. Indeed, his impact on American public life was formidable enough to profoundly affect the outcome of every presidential election during the period 1864 to 1884."

Nast's Depictions of Santa Claus

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The man-sized version of Santa became the dominant image around 1841, when a Philadelphia merchant named

J.W. Parkinson hired a man to dress in "Criscringle" clothing and climb the chimney outside his shop, but it was Thomas Nast who came to immortalize Santa Claus.

He began with an illustration for the January 3, 1863 issue [pictured right] where the first Santa Claus appeared as a small part of a large illustration titled "Santa Claus in Camp", in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. This Santa was a man dressed up handing out gifts to Union soldiers. 

The magazine printed his first drawing of Santa as a distinct personality in the December 26, 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly in an illustration titled "A Christmas Furlough". The illustration presented a touching image of Christmas during that critical period of our history, the Civil War. The center image is of a Civil War soldier coming home Christmas morning on furlough from the war. He receives a warm greeting from his wife and children. On the left, Santa is shown coming out of the chimney with his large bag of toys, and he is looking at the children. This was one of the first popular images of Santa Claus.

(click image to enlarge)

Although Nast did not use an image of Santa for his 1864 Christmas drawing, he brought St. Nick back in the December 30, 1865 issue of Harper’s, which contains a drawing of Santa Claus smoking a pipe and wishing a “Merry Christmas to all.” 

Nast would go on to produce an annual drawing of Santa Claus for the remainder of his time at Harper’s, each year adding details to the story of Santa’s life through his illustrations. His full page drawing in the January 1, 1881 issue became so popular that it has essentially served as Santa’s official portrait.

From then on, his cartoons depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. Thomas Nast provided twenty-three years of Santa Claus until the paper changed from a leading newsweekly into a magazine for late nineteenth-century homemakers. It was Nast who gave Santa his North Pole home, originated the elves and workshop, letter writing to Santa and he also conceived the idea of "bad" children not getting gifts!

Saint Nicholas' attire has gone through as many changes as he has. In New York City in 1865, at midnight on Christmas night, it was reported that Saint Nick appeared, at ball given in his honor, in "buckskin boots of large proportions; his pants were of a fawn color, with a blue stripe. A vest of scarlet, with large brass buttons, encircled a truly aldermanic paunch. A coat of dark brown, over which was thrown an ample cloak of scarlet and gold completed his attire. He was laden with toys - they hung from his arms, round his neck, his waist, and his back was heavily freighted. Round the room he tripped good humoredly, chuckling to himself as he distributed his stock and trade to all. The figure seemed to have elicited from Robert Walter Weir's painting and drawing at the Military Academy of West Point.

(click image to enlarge)

In 1866 his drawing (above), "Santa Claus And His Works", illustrating George P. Webster's poem of the same name, also introduced the icy north pole as the venue for Santa’s toy-making workshop. The legend effectively became a brand when, in 1920, painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell took Nast’s drawings as inspiration for his cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine.

Saturday Evening Post (December 1920) designed by Norman Rockwell

From HarpWeekly:

This multi-framed illustration of “Santa Claus and His Works” was artist Thomas Nast’s first major depiction of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly (appearing in the postdated December 29, 1866 issue).  Although other artists of the period sketched Santa Claus, Nast stands apart from the rest for his role in creating and popularizing the modern image of the Christmas figure.  He contributed 33 Christmas drawings to Harper’s Weekly from 1863 through 1886, and Santa is seen or referenced in all but one.  Nast’s full-page illustration of Santa Claus in 1881 quickly attained status akin to an official portrait, and is still widely reproduced today.  Before Nast, different regions, ethnic groups, and artists in the United States presented Santa Claus in various ways.  A sketch in Harper’s Weekly from 1858 shows a beardless Santa whose sleigh is pulled by a turkey.  Nast was instrumental in standardizing and nationalizing the image of a jolly, kind, and portly Santa in a red, fur-trimmed suit delivering toys from his North Pole workshop. This was accomplished through his work in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, his contributions to other publications, and by Christmas-card merchants in the 1870s and 1880s who relied heavily upon his portraiture.

In the featured “Santa and His Works,” Nast adapts characteristics from his German heritage (he was born in Bavaria) and from Clement Clark Moore’s famous 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), but the artist adds other aspects developed from his own creative mind and talented pen. The effect is to unveil much of the mystery behind Santa Claus by presenting a more complete account of his life, mission, and home. Instead of depicting him merely delivering gifts, the entire process of his work is detailed from the preparation to the execution to the recovery. The centerpiece is what children hope for:  Santa stuffing stockings hung on the fireplace, as toys lie on the floor. He is plump, white-bearded, red-nosed, dressed all in fur, carries the sack of a peddler (evoking earlier lore of Santa as a peddler), and is still the short elf of Moore’s poetic version (here, Santa needs a chair to reach the mantle). 

Along the sides, Nast adds parallel circular insets. To fulfill Santa’s traditional task of rewarding nice children and punishing naughty children, Santa uses a telescope to locate good children (upper-left), and records the behavior of children in an enormous account book (upper-right). On the center-left, he is seen in his workshop carefully crafting toys by hand (as opposed to the increasing reliance on factory production in America). On the center-right, he is taking a well-deserved post-Christmas rest in a rocking chair placed before a fireplace, as he holds a meerschaum pipe popular among Germans, Dutch, and their American descendents.  On the lower-left, the diminutive Santa uses a ladder to decorate the Christmas tree (another German tradition), and on the lower-right, sews doll clothing by hand (rather than using a sewing machine). Three years later, in 1869, “Santa and His Works” was included in a new publication of Moore’s poem illustrated by Nast.  At that time, Santa’s suit was changed to the red color for which it has thereafter been associated.

The origin of Santa’s home at the North Pole is uncertain, but in “Santa and His Works” Nast may have been the first illustrator to so identify the locale. (An 1857 illustration in Harper’s Weekly shows Santa preparing to leave a snowy but unnamed homeland.) In the late 1840s and the 1850s a series of expeditions to the Arctic captured public attention, and the area began to be discussed as the home of the elusive Santa Claus. Year-round the North Pole had the snow that was becoming associated in the popular image with Christmas (the American publishers of magazines, books, and cards carrying Christmas illustrations were headquartered in the snowy Northeast).  Furthermore, the North Pole's geographic isolation permitted the jolly old elf to work without interruption, and the region’s independence from all nations allowed Santa to be a symbol of universal good will.  The reference to the North Pole in the featured cartoon is on the curving border in the upper-right and reads “Santa Claussville, N. P.” The linkage of symbol and place was obviously common enough by 1866 that Nast realized he could simply abbreviate “North Pole.”

While setting the national standard, Nast’s own depiction of Santa Claus changed over the years.  He began his almost-annual contribution of Christmas illustrations when he joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly in 1862 during the Civil War. His first Santa (in the postdated January 3, 1863 issue) is a small elf distributing Christmas presents to Union soldiers in camp.  Santa dangles by the neck a comical jumping jack identified in accompanying text as Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. There was no doubt in Nast’s illustration whose side Santa favors in the war. Besides the military context, the cartoon is set off from later ones in that the gift giving is for adults, not children (except for the drummer boys). The other two Christmas illustrations of Nast’s published during the Civil War emphasize family scenes, with Santa relegated to the background.

From 1866-1871, Nast continued to elaborate upon the image of Santa Claus portrayed in “Santa and His Works.”  As in the featured cartoon, he also emphasized during this period Santa’s disciplinary role in judging whether the behavior of children during the past year warranted Christmas rewards or punishment.  In an 1870 cartoon, Santa surprises two naughty children by jumping out as a jack-in-the-box clutching a switch for spanking.  In 1871, Santa sits at his desk reading letter from parents chronicling their children’s good and bad acts, with the “letters from naughty children’s parents” far outnumbering the “letters from good children’s parents.”  It is probably not coincidental that Nast was at that time the father of several young children (the eldest, Julia, was 9 years old in 1871). Whatever the reason, the cartoons helped revive the idea of Santa as reinforcing parental discipline, a notion that had waned since the publication of Moore’s poem in which Santa brought a “happy Christmas to all.”

Through the rest of the 1870s, Nast’s Santa Claus was no longer the disciplinarian, but, instead, played a cat-and-mouse game with children in which he tried not to be seen and they tried to catch him in the act of delivering presents. Again, the illustrations likely reflected the situation in Nast’s home, where he loved to wrap presents and celebrate the season, but at a time when his children had become old enough to try to find the gifts and nab the gift-giver. In “Santa Waiting for Children to Get to Sleep” (1874), Santa is forced to delay on a rooftop because children in the house below are still awake.  A related poem blames the late-night hours of the family on the use of gas lighting in homes. 

As Nast’s own children entered and left their teen years, knowing that Santa was really their father, the artist’s illustrations finally showed direct communication and interaction between Santa Claus and the pictured children.  In a postdated January 1879 issue, a girl drops a letter to Santa in a mailbox (the first time the artist depicted a letter from a child to Santa), and in December 1884, Santa and a girl are able to speak with each other by using a relatively new invention, the telephone. In the January 1879 issue, another Nast cartoon portrays Santa Claus in the midst of a group of gleeful children who he embraces affectionately. Santa is now recognized as part of the family, whose shared love is the greatest gift.  Nast’s Santa makes his last appearance in Harper’s Weekly the next year when the jolly old (man-size) elf offers himself as a present. Nast’s last two Christmas illustrations in Harper’s Weekly appeared in December 1886, when he resigned from the newspaper, but his impact on the popular image of Santa Claus continued and remains potent to this day.

Robert C. Kennedy [[© HarpWeek - http://www.harpweek.com/]

Nast's 1866 montage in Harper's entitled "Santa Claus and His Works" established Santa as a maker of toys, first located Santa's workshop at the North Pole, where it has remained ever since. In an 1869 book of the same name collected new Nast drawings with a poem by George P. Webster that identified the North Pole as Santa's home. In 1866, he depicted him in a reddish brown outfit, trimmed in white ermine. This illustration appeared in George P. Walker's verse story "Santa Claus And His Works" was probably a major contributor to the idea that Santa wore red. Walker's story also contributed the legend of Santa Claus that he lives in the North Pole. In an 1870 edition of "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" in Harper's Illustrated Weekly Saint Nicholas wore a red cloth coat. 

On January 4, 1879, Harper’s Weekly published "A Christmas Post," showing a girl putting a letter in the mailbox, addressed to St. Claus, North Pole. The sketch titled "The Shine of Saint Nicholas" published on December 31, 1882, showed good children at the North Pole; Santa was seated on a box with the inscription "Saint Nicholas, North Pole." Harper’s Weekly on December 19, 1885 published "Santa Claus’s Route," a sketch showing two children looking at a map of the world and tracing Santa's journey from the North Pole to the United States.

Finally, in "Santa Claus and His Works," printed in Harper’s Weekly in 1886, Nast showed Santa and his workshop at Santa Claussville, North Pole. In 1869, American writer George P. Webster published Santa Claus and His Works and took up this idea, explaining that Santa's toy factory and "his house, during the long summer months, was hidden in the ice and snow of the North Pole". Although his name did not appear on the cover, the seven color illustrations were provided by Nast, who gave us a look at the red and white suit of Santa. Many of the illustrations in the book were colorized expansions of the woodcuts from Harper’s Weekly.

Years later, Nast told his biographer, Albert B. Paine, that his Santa Claus came from tales told of Pelze-Nicol (St. Nicholas) during his childhood in the town of Landau in Bavaria, where he was born in 1840. The German image, Payne wrote, was of "a fat, fur-clad, bearded old fellow." In the years after the Civil War, Nast refined and elaborated the image. Here came the bag stuffed with gifts and the pipe and the twinkling eyes. 

Although Nast never settled on one size for his Santa figures (they ranged from elf-like to man-sized), his drawing of "Merry Old Santa Claus" in the January 1, 1881 issue of Harper's Weekly. That full page drawing became so popular that it has essentially served as Santa’s official portrait.

In his annual drawings, Nast added other details such as Santa's list of the good and bad children of the world. His cartoons also showed the world how Santa spent his entire year constructing toys, checking on children's behavior (by use of a telescope from a parapet of his home in Santa Claussville, North Pole), and reading the letters from both the children and their parents. His images became incorporated into the Santa lore.

Most of his Christmas drawings were of domestic scenes, and most often of children. It was the Nast children who were most frequently the models. By the beginning of 1872, the Nast children were Julia (1862), Tom, Edith, and Mabel (born in December 1871). It was Julia who was the model for "Christmas Flirtation." A son, Cyril, was born August 28, 1879, was the model for "Another Stocking To Fill" published in Harper’s Weekly in January, 1880. According to Paine, Mrs. Nast was frequently the model for "Columbia."

Nast also provided illustrations to Christmas Poems issued by J. M. Gregory (1863-64), including one for Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, "A A Visit from St. Nicholas." It was the first of his illustrations to appear in book form. His Christmas drawings were also published in the London papers in 1880. His last Christmas illustration was published in Leslie’s Illustrated in 1901 – where he got his first job as an illustrator in 1855.


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Created: Sunday, November 03, 2002; Last updated: Wednesday, December 30, 2015
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