America’s history is so crammed with the stories of exceptional people who did exceptional things that it has become easy to lose track, overlook, or under-appreciate many. It would be difficult to find a more deserving character than an immigrant boy of the 19th century to honor with a brief remembrance – especially during what has euphemistically become known as “the Holiday Season”.
Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany on September 27th, 1840. Six years later, he and his family undertook immigration to America, settling in New York. Young Thomas had a difficult time fitting in, right from Day One. He was short, fat and unattractive. He was a poor student, slow to learn basic English, and was soon sent home from public school as “unpromising”.
Making use of cast-off crayon remnants supplied by a neighbor, Thomas began to fill his lonely hours by drawing pictures of the everyday neighborhood in which he lived. His talent got him into an art school about which we know little – except that by age 15, he no longer had the funds to continue, or to enter the kind of long, drawn-out apprenticeship program the times required.
In the days before photography, the publishers of journals and newspapers employed illustrators to add visual interest to the printed media which served a public hungry for news and entertainment. Motivated by desperation and sheer audacity, young Thomas presented himself to the publisher of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. To get rid of the persistent pest, Leslie gave him a drawing assignment and deadline he knew the petitioner couldn’t complete. To his surprise, Nast appeared at his desk the next day with the finished work in hand. He was hired on the spot.
While working for Leslie, Thomas learned the exacting art of carving wood cuts – the technique of creating a reverse image on a wooden plate which when inked would produce a near photo-like reproduction on paper. Some time around 1858 or 1859, he tried his hand for the first time at drawing a political cartoon. It was immediately bought by the publisher of Harper’s Weekly where Nast found a new “home”. Not only had he become adept at depicting current happenings in life-like illustrations, but he quickly revealed a rare insight into what was going on in the world of politics around him. It was Thomas Nast who invented the democrat donkey and the republican elephant, and many historians give him credit for developing the Uncle Sam image which remains a national institution.
The impact of Nast’s cartoons was deep and widespread, and they informed the public in a way mere words couldn’t. He helped to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed political machine in New York and to elect Rutherford B. Hayes U.S. President in 1876. In fact he was eerily successful in picking political winners, and in six successive presidential campaigns, his cartoons were a predictor.
During the Civil War, Nast became depressed with having to illustrate the tragedy of death on the battlefields, and in 1862 he decided to try to bring something uplifting to the nation with the beginning of a series of what came to be known as his “Christmas Drawings”. The first depicted a plump, bearded, hearty, happy elf of a man in a sleigh delivering gifts to soldiers. Building on the old European idea of a stark, stern, black-robed “Father Christmas”, Thomas Nast began polishing and fine-tuning the new Santa Claus, building on the popular Clement Moore poem, T’Was The Night Before Christmas, suggesting a home in the North Pole, and the expanding storyline which quickly captured the imagination of children and grown-ups around the world. For the next 24 years Nast would produce 76 original Christmas engravings, including everything from the idea of a Santa workshop to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, finally giving us the Merry Old Elf image we have today.
The chubby immigrant boy with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge who carved his art in wood went on to become one of the most successful, wealthy and honored artists of his day, ending his career as U.S. ambassador to Ecuador. What his world of admirers didn’t know, was that Thomas Nast had a secret. He had never learned to read or write. His devoted wife – his greatest admirer – was his window on the world, mentoring his searching mind and reading aloud to him even as he carved.
The Santa Claus Thomas Nast gave us will be 147 years old this Merry Christmas !