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See Thomas Nast’s Iconic Santa Images

Thomas Nast illustration of Santa Claus. Courtesy of Macculloch Hall Historical Museum.

His big red suit with white trim is iconic, but Santa Claus wasn’t always depicted that way. The popularized image of jolly old Saint Nicholas traces back to Thomas Nast, an artist considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon,” whose work is center stage at Macculloch Hall Historical Museum in Morristown.

The historical-house-turned-museum sits across the street from Nast’s former home and was founded in the mid-20th century by W. Parsons Todd, a childhood friend of Nast’s son. Macculloch Hall houses the nation’s largest collection of original works by Nast, and this time of year, the museum’s interior is trimmed with garland in anticipation of visitors eager to see the artist’s popular holiday illustrations.

“Santa Claus had existed before Thomas Nast,” reminds Museum Curator Ryan Hyman. “Thomas Nast basically took Clement Clarke Moore’s poem… ‘Twas the Night before Christmas,’ and used that to do a lot of his Christmas drawings. He also modeled Santa Claus off of his own image…so a lot of the Santa Claus pictures look like Nast.”

It wasn’t for the purpose of spreading Christmas cheer, though, that his first drawings of the beloved character were created. “His first Santa Claus images came during the Civil War, and they were more political images,” explains Hyman. “[Nast’s] first Santa Claus was…[depicted] in a Union camp during the Civil War giving gifts out to the Northern soldiers, basically saying they were the good boys, and the Confederates were the bad soldiers and were not getting any gifts.”

The Santa imagery was a hit for Harper’s Weekly, the political magazine where Nast worked, and it was a money-earner for Nast, who drew more Santa Claus illustrations each year. His work shaped the popular image of the character we see today.

Still, Nast’s legacy extends far beyond Santa. He also popularized the symbols of the Democratic donkey and Uncle Sam, and created the symbol of the Republican elephant. In the late 1800s, a time of lower literacy rates, Nast’s political cartoons in Harper’s Weekly garnered him a great deal of influence.

“Even though people couldn’t read all the articles in papers, they could understand what was going on just from his drawings,” says Hyman. “This was before photography was published in newspapers and magazines regularly, so his drawings really had a big impact on people.”

Nast’s work had such an impact, in fact, that he played an important role in the elections of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, with Hayes remarking that Nast was “the most powerful, single-handed aid [he] had.” The artist also helped bring down the corrupt Tammany Hall leader, William “Boss” Tweed.

Tweed and associates, who held control of New York City’s government and defrauded the city of millions of dollars, became targets of Nast’s cartoons. The campaign against them was so powerful that Tweed attempted to bribe Nast, first with $100,000 and then with $500,000. Ultimately, Tweed’s ring was removed from power and Tweed fled the country. Thanks to Nast’s artwork, though, he was brought to justice.

“Tweed had fled over to Spain, and Spanish authorities had seen this one cartoon and recognized him from the cartoon,” says Hyman. “That’s how he was arrested, brought back and put in jail.” Hyman adds that, according to legend, threats from Tweed are what originally brought Nast and his family to Morristown in an effort to stay safe.

While Nast was a long-time resident of New Jersey, controversy around some of his work has kept him from a spot in the New Jersey Hall of Fame. His nominations (he was considered more than once) sparked outrage because of illustrations he created that were anti-Irish and anti-Catholic in nature. “These works are inflammatory and offensive to the thousands of Irish Catholics that call New Jersey home,” Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo wrote to then-Hall of Fame Executive Director Don Jay Smith in 2011.

Smith responded that these illustrations represented a small portion of the artist’s body of work, and the cartoons “attacked the Irish because they were the main supporters of the Democratic machine of Tammany Hall, which he opposed.” Smith continued, “If it had been another group he would have attacked them.” He also added that Nast had been a force for good in his career as well by fighting corruption, advocating for Abolition and supporting the rights of Native Americans.

While Nast may never hold a place in the New Jersey Hall of Fame, his places in history and at Macculloch Hall are well established. “[His cartoons] were pretty powerful at the time,” Hyman says. “He was sort of at the right place at the right time.”

“Not a Creature was Stirring,” Macculloch Hall’s holiday exhibit, is open through Jan. 31, and a collection of Nast’s political cartoons on Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall titled “Thomas Nast Brings Down Boss Tweed” is on display through Aug. 3, 2014.