The "most powerful and influential political cartoonist that America has ever known" is the way historians Eric Foner and John A. Garraty describe Thomas Nast (1840-1902). His political commentary was influential in his day, but Nast also lives on because he created iconic drawings that are still with us today -- including Santa Claus.
In the mid-nineteenth century when Thomas Nast became well-known, the political cartoon had already been a popular feature as social commentary in American newspapers. Ben Franklin's newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, ran political cartoons as early as the 1750s. By the 1850s, the process of printing papers was become more efficient. With the increase in papers that were published, competition soon ramped up on whose paper provided the most intriguing illustrations.
Commercial photography was coming into its own at this time, but newspapers could not yet reproduce photographs. Newspaper illustrators either drew what they envisioned should go with a story, or sometimes they were given a photograph and they copied the scene. (Mathew Brady's photographer fanned out across battlefields to capture photographs of the Civil War, but all those images had to be turned into illustrations to appear in print.) For reproduction purposes, the illustrations had to be created as woodblock engravings.
Thomas Nast began drawing for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper while still in his teens. Three years later he was hired by Harper's Weekly and spent the bulk of his career there.
Creating Santa Claus
The image of Santa was actually created rather early in Nast's career. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas was usually depicted as a tall, thin man. The story goes that in 1863 Nast's wife read him Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas." Based on Moore's description, Nast created the image of the "round jolly old elf" we think of today. (By 1931 Santa was further refined by an artist who specialized in advertising for the Coca-Cola Company. Haddon Sundblum always depicted Santa in a red suit with a black belt and white-fur trim, black boots, and a soft, red cap.)
After the Civil War, Nast continued to draw political commentary, and his depictions of the Reconstruction era and the characters involved left little room for misunderstanding. He showed the plight of the freedmen during Reconstruction, the negatives of Andrew Johnson and the Democrats, the menace of the Ku Klux Klan, and the perils of the Tweed Ring. Many credit his anti-Tweed cartoons with heightening public anger to the point that it led to the end to Tweed dominance of the political scene.
But perhaps the most stunning story about Nast's drawings of Tweed was the recognition factor. In a day when we regularly see still and video images of newsmakers from around the world, people in the nineteenth century did not have access to clear images of those in the news. Boss Tweed knew that anger toward him was growing, and he fled to Spain, but the police in Spain found Nast's caricature of Boss Tweed to be accurate enough that Tweed was identified and arrested in 1876.
Leaving Harper's Weekly
Nast's final illustration for Harper's Weekly was a Christmas illustration that appeared in December of 1886. Though Nast published a book of Christmas drawings in 1890 and took over a floundering magazine in 1892 and tried publishing Nast's Weekly, he lost his platform when he left Harper's Weekly and Harper's Weekly lost its political bite.
Nast maintained friendships with Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain, and other notable Americans, and in 1902 Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to serve as U.S. Consul General in Ecuador. He was in South America during a very bad outbreak of yellow fever. Nast remained on the job to help Americans get out of the area, but he himself contracted yellow fever during that period, and he died from the disease at the age of 62.
In addition to Santa Claus, Nast created other iconic images that live on today: the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, the Tammany tiger, and the workingman with his cap and dinner pail.
For information on another terrific political cartoonist, read "Political Cartoons -- Surprisingly Timeless" about Denys Wortman, whose work is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York.
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