THOMAS NASTBorn: 1840 : : : Died: 1902
Job Description: Cartoonist
Worked in: Magazine/newspaper cartoons
Noted for: Effective political cartoons, and the modern visualization of Santa Claus
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the Democrat Donkey (in 1868) and the Republican Elephant (in 1874). Some people credit him with having designed the modern appearance of Uncle Sam, but while this isn't quite untrue, it is very much an exaggeration. His most significant achievement is probably his role in developing the modern visualization of Santa Claus.
Most of Nast's Santa Claus cartoons appeared in Harper's Weekly during the middle-to-late part of the 19th century. So did the majority of his political cartoons and cartoons of other genres, totaling more than 2,000. Harper's (which started in 1857) was the first American publication to achieve national circulation, and therefore the first in a position to give its contributors national fame. But Nast became more than ordinarily famous — he's one of the few cartoonists to get his name into elementary school textbooks, for having changed the course of history (albeit, in a minor way).
Nast was born September 27, 1840 in Landau, Germany, and came to America with his family at age 6. By the time he was 15, his cartoons were being published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, an early bastion of American graphic humor. He was 19 when his work first appeared in Harper's. In the early 1860s, he spent some time in Europe, partly in London and partly with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Father of Modern Italy, whose deeds (in those pre-photoengraving days) Nast illustrated for the news media of the time.
By 1862, Nast was back in America, and a regular in Harper's; and his cartoons were starting to have an impact. A bitter foe of the Confederacy — and gifted with an ability to convey his point of view to a mass audience — he was called (by President Lincoln, no less) the Union's #1 recruiting agent. After the war, he turned his pen toward President Andrew Johnson, one of many voices in the press calling for Johnson's impeachment. A staunch Republican, Nast then campaigned so effectively for Ulysses S. Grant's presidential campaign, that Grant credited Nast with having won the election for him. By the time it was over, the two had become lifelong friends.
In the early 1870s, Nast launched his campaign against the particular set of Democrats that would get him into the history books — the ones that occupied Tammany Hall, where New York City was governed — the ones run by the legendarily corrupt William M. "Boss" Tweed and his small coterie of equally slimy civic and business leaders. It was Nast who exposed them to public view, Nast who brought about their downfall, Nast who began the process that put some, including Tweed himself, behind bars and Nast who immortalized them, as the first politicians defeated by a cartoonist. Without him, they'd have been as ephemeral as any other crooked politicians, long since consigned to the dustbin of history.
Throughout his career, Nast was a champion of human rights — not just the rights of former slaves, which was no longer very controversial in the urban North, but also the less fashionable ones of Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. He wasn't perfect, however. He drew many cartoons depicting the Catholic Church and the Irish immigrants who brought it to America as an insidious monster invading our shores.
Another thing he did through most of his career was draw a special Christmas cartoon each year. Embellishing on the description given in Clement Moore's "A Visit From Saint Nick", Nast popularized the "Jolly Old Elf" look Santa Claus sports today. The only thing missing, since his work was published in black and white, was the coloring (which became prominent in the early 20th century, and was finally solidified by Coca-Cola advertising). It was in his 1885 Christmas cartoon that Nast established Santa's residence at the North Pole.
And a third thing Nast was consistent about was his support for the Republican Party — at least until 1884, when, along with his friend Mark Twain, he became a Mugwump — that is, a renegade Republican who eschewed party loyalty in favor of what he saw as clean politics. After that, Nast lost much of his public support, a situation exacerbated by his opposition to trade unions. He left Harper's a few years later and mostly retired from cartooning, still in his mid-40s. He made an effort to establish a magazine of his own, Nast's Weekly or Nast's Almanac, but was unable to develop a strong enough following.
The cartooning field was changing rapidly in the 1880s. Men were already on the scene who would carry the art into the 20th century and the dawn of newspaper comics. Palmer Cox introduced The Brownies during that period, and Frederick Burr Opper, who would later create Happy Hooligan and other modern-style comic strips, was becoming prominent. Nast's work appeared only on rare occasions, and looked increasingly dated when it did. Nast had become a legend in the field, but was no longer very relevant to it.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt sent Nast to Guayaquil, Ecuador, as American consul. It was there that he contracted yellow fever and, on December 7 of that year, died. By that time, many of his admirers from the old days had thought him already dead.