Thomas Nast (September 27, 1840 – December 7, 1902) was a famous political cartoonist at the turn of the last century, notably for his campaigns against the corrupt Boss Tweed and his associates in New York City - in fact, his cartoons were SO effective in causing public outrage that Tweed tried to buy him off. According to Wikipedia, "Tweed so feared Nast's campaign that he sent an emissary to offer the artist a bribe of $100,000, which was represented as a gift from a group of wealthy benefactors to enable Nast to study art in Europe. Feigning interest, Nast negotiated for more before finally refusing an offer of $500,000 with the words, "Well, I don't think I'll do it. I made up my mind not long ago to put some of those fellows behind the bars". Nast pressed his attack in the pages of Harper's, and the Ring was removed from power in the election of November 7, 1871. Tweed was arrested in 1873 and convicted of fraud. When Tweed attempted to escape justice in December 1875 by fleeing to Cuba and from there to Spain, officials in Vigo, Spain, were able to identify the fugitive by using one of Nast's cartoons."
In addition to bedeviling corrupt politicians, Nash also used his talents to create the earliest American version of Santa Claus, which came about inadvertently as a result of the American Civil War. As related in the Thomas Nast Portfolio, "Thomas Nast “invented” the image popularly recognized as Santa Claus. Nast first drew Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper’s Weekly cover and center-fold illustration to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early and, for the north, darkest days of the Civil War. Nast’s Santa appeared as a kindly figure representing Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. His use of Santa Claus was melancholy, sad for the faltering Union war effort in which Nast so fervently believed, and sad for the separation of soldiers and families. When Nast created his image of Santa Claus he was drawing on his native German tradition of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop known for his kindness and generosity. In the German Christian tradition December 6 was (and is) Saint Nicholas day, a festival day honoring Saint Nicholas and a day of gift giving. Nast combined this tradition of Saint Nicholas with other German folk traditions of elves to draw his Santa in 1862. The claim that Nast “invented” Santa Claus in 1862 is thus accurate, but the assertion overlooks the centuries-long antecedents to his invention.Santa Claus thrived thereafter in American culture both Christian and secular. During the Civil War, Christmas was a traditional festival celebration in the United States, although not yet a holiday. In Nast’s time Christmas was not a day when offices or factories closed; but the development of Christmas as a holiday and the use of Santa Claus as a secular symbol of gift giving removed from its Christian antecedents occurred during Nast’s lifetime. The modern American celebration of Christmas, with its commercialized gift exchanges, developed in cities, led by New York, after 1880. Nast’s images of Santa Claus were so popular that they were collected and reprinted in a book published in 1890."
What is particularly striking about the cover version of Santa is his costume - instead of the traditional red costume fringed with white collars and cuffs (and the broad black belt), we have a "patriotic" Santa visiting the Union troops in a stars and stripes outfit!
The Thomas Nast Santa was the visual representation for a number of years (more of which you can see in tomorrow's entry) until Haddon Sundblom's modern reimagining of the character, which is universally recognized as Santa today. Who knows what future changes will be in store for this beloved Christmas icon?
Check back tomorrow for our next holiday topic!