For Christmas Eve, I give you Santa Claus, as created in America by Thomas Nast, the brilliant, edgy cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who almost single-handedly created the art of modern visual satire.
Nast’s cartoons of New York City’s untouchable corrupt Boss Tweed made Nast a unique national media star and political terror after they helped force Tweed’s arrest in 1872. Among other things, Nast created the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, and pioneered personal attack politics. But he had a soft side.
Born in 1840 in Alsace, son of an army trombone player, Nast came to New York as an 8 year-old, learned English from scratch, and soon exploded on the scene as an artistic prodigy just as the newest media technology — graphic magazines — was coming of age. Barely in his 20s, he drew national fame for his sketches of Garibaldi’s march through Italy, American Civil War battlefields, and dazzling sports events like prize fights and horse races.
Nast created the drawing on the right below for Harper’s Weekly in 1863, at the height of the Civil War when thousands of families were split apart and husbands-fathers-brothers were being butchered on faraway battlefields. It’s simple sentiment made it a sensation and helped boost regular sales of Harper’s into the stratosphere. People posted copies of Nast sketches in saloons, kitchens, and storefronts.
Around this same time, Nast began making the old German fold legend Saint Nicholas a regular in his Christmas-time fare, gave him a fat belly, beard, sled, and mission to give presents. Nast drew Santa visiting Civil War soldiers at the front, then on the home front climbing down chimneys, hugging children, stuffing stockings with presents, and the rest. He made him a household name as well, as in the 1874 Harper’s cover above.
Nast himself would make a fortune as the most famous illustrator in America, but then lose it in 1885 after investing his money in a Wall Street firm run by former President Ulysses Grant (Grant and Ward) that went belly up after being victimized by an embezzler.