Kate Kelly: The Political Cartoonist Who Introduced Santa





[Kate Kelly is author of Election Day: An American Holiday, an American History as well as a six-volume history of medicine.]

The "most powerful and influential political cartoonist that America has ever known" is the way historians Eric Foner and John A. Garraty describe Thomas Nast (1840-1902). His political commentary was influential in his day, but Nast also lives on because he created iconic drawings that are still with us today--including Santa Claus.

In the mid-nineteenth century when Thomas Nast became well-known, the political cartoon had already been a popular feature as social commentary in American newspapers. Ben Franklin's newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, ran political cartoons as early as the 1750s. By the 1850s, the process of printing papers was become more efficient. With the increase in papers that were published, competition soon ramped up on whose paper provided the most intriguing illustrations.

Commercial photography was coming into its own at this time, but newspapers could not yet reproduce photographs. Newspaper illustrators either drew what they envisioned should go with a story, or sometimes they were given a photograph and they copied the scene. (Mathew Brady's photographer fanned out across battlefields to capture photographs of the Civil War, but all those images had to be turned into illustrations to appear in print.) For reproduction purposes, the illustrations had to be created as woodblock engravings.

Thomas Nast began drawing for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper while still in his teens. Three years later he was hired by Harper's Weekly and spent the bulk of his career there....


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