Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you? Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today. But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year. I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole. The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.
Born in Germany, Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art. By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a circulation upwards of 200,000. Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in so small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.
I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:
“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant. Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.” Nast, a staunch Republican, suggested that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements.
Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war. (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning. The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.) Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war. (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard or the Ku Klux Klan.) The third and smallest element, here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party, stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes. (Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.) Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box. Nast here is making a powerful argument for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.
Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874. The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party. “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan. “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later. “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just. The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) allude to two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat. The central focus of the cartoon shows grieving African-American parents holding their (apparently) slain child. A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house. In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.
But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans. To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the (Democratic) southern white majority. But he became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South. The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,” appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon. It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature. However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.
But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics. His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.
Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs. And yet it was the cartoonist Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.
But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like. His first attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers. (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”) In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem. This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle. As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one. The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.