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Saturday, December 14, 2013

German-American Spotlight: Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast is at the top of my list of heroes.  However, when I share that with most people, they give me a blank look then politely smile and nod as if I'm not crazy for admiring a man most have never heard of.  What's really crazy though, is how unknown he is considering how much he influenced the American culture.

This topic usually comes up at Christmastime for me when there's talk about Santa Claus.  Today alone, I've probably replied to at least 10 people who insisted that the image of Santa Claus we use was a creation of Coca Cola.  As much as I try to avoid soda, I love Coca Cola (especially mixed with Fanta...if you've never had spezi, you haven't lived).  They suspended brand advertising to donate money to the Phillippines after the typhoon hit in November 2013.  They have a good product and do some great things.

However, Coca Cola did not create Santa Claus.  Thomas Nast did.  And he did a whole lot more than provide us with the image of Santa Claus we all know today.

Thomas Nast self portrait
Thomas Nast's self portrait
[If you want to jump straight to the part about Santa, click here]
Nast is often referred to as the "father of the American cartoon" and rightfully so.  His success was not apparent in his childhood though.  Born September 27, 1840 in Landau, Germany, Nast came to America at age 6 with his mother and sister.  His father did not join them for another 4 years.  The family settled in New York and Nast found it hard to adjust.  He could not speak English and did not enjoy school to the point where he was close to failing out.  Luckily, a neighbor, who was a candle and crayon maker, gave Nast reject crayons.  Thus began his love of drawing.  When he was 12, his parents put him in art school.  However, due to financial difficulty, he had to drop out and get a job.

I can relate to not being able to easily find employment.  Luckily, I have an education and some degrees to help me in my search.  Nast was not only illiterate, but his physique was not suited to manual labor.  He used his drawing talent and persistence to earn a job at Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.  In 1858, financial problems struck again, this time for the newspaper, and Nast lost his job.

Nast worked briefly at an art studio before trying his hand at political cartoons and being hired by Harper's Weekly, a New York political magazine.  Shortly thereafter, the New York Illustrated News offered him twice the salary and an opportunity to travel Europe.  This company must have also had financial difficulties because it stopped paying Nast and stranded him in London.  After briefly working for the London Illustrated News, Nast was able to travel back home.  

Nast's first Harper's Weekly political cartoon from 1859.  More can be found in the book Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures.

At this point, it was 1861, and the Civil War had started.  Nast wanted to enlist and fight for the Union, but his friends insisted he could do more with his artwork than on the battlefield.  Luckily, he was able to return to Harper's Weekly and illustrated battles and scenes from the war throughout its duration.  This artwork was done on paper and with wood engravings.

1864 "Compromise with the South" political cartoon by Nast illustrating his criticism of the Democrats' anti-Civil War peace platform. 

1862 "The Bombardment of Fredericksburg by the Army of the Potomac" Civil War illustration by Nast

Nast found himself in a position where he was as influential as politicians.  In fact, Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party printed and distributed millions of copies of the above "Compromise with the South" cartoon. This helped to win Lincoln the presidential election and gained Nast more popularity.  His cartoons continued to inform and influence public opinion.  As a Union supporter, he opposed slavery (like many German immigrants of the time) and used his illustrations to show the evils of slavery and benefits of abolition.  His political cartoons still influence us today; he was the creator of both the Republican party elephant and the Democrat party donkey as symbols to represent the parties.  
The most popular symbol Nast created that remains with Americans today is Santa Claus.  His first depiction of Santa Claus appeared in Harper's Weekly  in 1862 (seen below) and was influenced by Clement Moore's
'Twas the Night before Christmas.  Nast, who still could not read well, asked his wife to read to he drew.  She read him Moore's poem one night, and he was inspired to illustrate Santa.  Nast used the details from the poem and added his own.  He decided Santa was a citizen of the world so he lived in the North Pole.  He created Santa's workshop filled with elves making toys.  He essentially created the naughty and nice list by saying that only good children received gifts from Santa.  He even introduced the idea of sending letters to Santa.

1863 "Santa Claus in Camp" - Nast's first representation of Santa Claus
His new Santa Claus immediately gained popularity in America and influenced more parts of the holiday here and abroad.  In the late 1800's, Christmas was legally declared to be December 25 in all states and territories which led to the winter holiday break schools have now.  Others used Nast's Santa details in their own advertising to promote Christmas sales.  This even led to the custom of sending Christmas cards.  More than anything, Nast gave us the beloved Santa we all know today.  Who knows what we could have ended up with otherwise?

Another Nast illustration of Santa that is very similar to our modern version.

There is so much to be said about Nast and other sources that give an even better, fuller biography.  I recommend R.J. Brown's piece "Thomas Nast: The Power of One Person's Wood Engravings" from  I knew a lot from previous research, but learned even more from that piece.

Thomas Nast is at the top of my favorite German-Americans.  Even if one disagrees with his politics, there is so much to admire.  He took an unconventional path and was persistent to get to where he wanted to be.  He overcame obstacles along the way when he could have decided they were insurmountable and given up.  Not to mention, his artwork is amazing.  Mostly, to me he is just a huge representation of the power of the First Amendment.  Speech is a powerful tool and can be used to shape opinion and provide information that might otherwise stay unknown.  Nast used this power effectively and with good intentions.  His story is inspirational and unfortunately not too well known.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your enthusiasm. Believe it or not, I lived in the States over 50 years and encountered Nast while teaching U.S. History. Retired now I find a partner near Landau and see the bust of Thomas Nast im Rathaus. So I join the Thomas Nast Verein and spend the last year translating captions in the drawings for the Stadtarchiv. Next year we host the big exhibit for his 175th birthday, which then moves to the Tomi Ungerer museum in Straßburg.