The Evolution of Christmas: Santa Claus in the 1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In this third installment of the season, looking at how images of Santa Claus changed over time, we highlight two more illustrations from one of America’s most popular publications, Harper’s Weekly, during the 1870s.

The first image is from famed illustrator Thomas Nast, often called the “Father of the American Cartoon.”  Born in 1840 in Landau, Germany, in the southwestern part of the country near France, Nast came with his family to the United States when he was six years old.  He was a poor student and dropped out of school, but his prodigious talent led him to get his first cartooning job at age 15 for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, another popular periodical.  Three years later, he landed a job at Harper’s Weekly, where he remained for almost three decades.

Nast first became known for his pro-Union and anti-slavery work during the Civil War, but his reputation during his time was sealed with his sharp political cartoons during the first half of the 1870s covering “Boss” Tweed, who dominated New York politics with his Tammany Hall machine.  In fact, he created the elephant that became the symbol of the Republican Party and made more popular the donkey that represented Democrats.

The artist, however, is also considered responsible for setting the stage for the representation of Santa Claus as the heavily bearded, robust, jolly figure we recognize, if not with the famed red velvet suit trimmed in white because Nast worked in black and white illustration.  His first rendering was in the same 3 January 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, from which an image by another artist was discussed in the last post in this series.  He also was the first, evidently, to identify the North Pole as Santa’s home.

He expanded upon his concept of Santa in the post-Civil War era, focusing on his attention to children’s behavior, which probably reflected Nast’s status as a father.  In fact, the Nast-drawn Santas of the 1870s tended to fixate on how to surprise children, like the artist’s own brood, determined to stay awake and meet the bringer of presents.

This print from the Homestead’s collection is from the 3 January 1874 edition of Harper’s Weekly and is titled “Santa Waiting for Children to Get to Sleep.”

The image highlighted here is one of four Nast illustrations, but the only featuring Santa, from the Homestead’s collection. Published on 3 January 1874 and titled “Santa Waiting for Children to Get to Sleep,” the image shows St. Nick patiently perched and puffing on a pipe atop a chimney stack, with his pack on his back and his reindeer-drawn sleigh parked on the roof next to him.  A poem within the issue lamented the fact that children were able to stay awake later at nights because of the growing use of gas lighting!

In later years, and as his own children got older, Nast had Santa interact directly with kids, introduced such concepts as children sending letters to Santa and Kris Kringle corresponding with kids via the latest communications innovation, the telephone.

However, Nast’s conflicts with his long-time employer accelerated by the 1880s and his final work with Harper’s Weekly, including some holiday-themed ones, appeared at the end of 1886.  By then, the artist was under financial distress due to investments in a fraudulent scheme from a banker and broker in New York.  He found fewer requests for his work, tried running his own magazine, which failed, and had debilitating pain in his hands.

Nast tried to find work as an American consul in Europe and was unsuccessful, but, in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a fan of the artist, appointed him consul in Ecuador.  Just five months into the job, Nast succumbed to yellow fever during an epidemic.  He was 62 years old.

Little remembered now, but well-known in his time, was the illustrator Thomas Worth.  Worth (1834-1917), a native of New York, was highly productive and proficient in his work and was initially known for his lithographed drawings for the famed firm of Currier and Ives.  Unfortunately, his best-regarded work was in the “Darktown” series which caricatured blacks in racist ways that were common for the era, but reprehensible in our own.   One of his prints in this series sold some 73,000 copies, an astounding figure for the era, but emblematic of the racism that permeated America.

Worth also worked extensively for the Harper Brothers, publishers of Harper’s Weekly, the masthead of which appears to be a Worth design, and contributed a great many illustrations to that publication over the course of many decades.  He also was prolific with renderings for the cheaply produced but highly popular dime novels of the late 19th century.  Not much is known about Worth, though one contemporary was quoted as saying that, “he liked good company and had an impressive capacity for liquor.”

This 6 January 1877 Harper’s Weekly print by Thomas Worth from the Homestead’s collection, “Santa Claus Round the World”, showed Santa’s work in Europe, Asia, America and Africa, but the latter portrayed prevailing racist stereotypes that permeated Worth’s work and attitudes of most Americans in the period.

The 6 January 1877 edition of Harper’s Weekly has a Worth-created drawing called “Santa Claus Round the World.”  In the center is a St. Nick not too different from the style of Nast, depicting a rotund, heavily bearded and quite jolly looking Kris Kringle holding a large platter of food and drink with present-filled stockings dangling from the sides.

At the four corners (literally, of the world) are vignettes showing Santa in Europe, Asia, America and Africa.  While the first shows a stocking bursting with gifts hanging from a fireplace mantel, the second shows Santa handing gifts to Arab, Chinese and Japanese gentlemen, and the third has Uncle Sam peering at a turkey stuffed into a pair of stockings, the last shows Worth’s unashed racism.  It depicts Santa handing minstrel clothing and a banjo to a dancing tribesman with exaggerated facial features, such as protruding lips.  The image shows that the Christmas holidays, the developing peak of Christian America, were anything but immune to the degrading racism of the period.

Worth and Nast were, in that regard, polar (pardon the pun) opposites.  While Nast, as noted above, drew very pointed anti-slavery cartoons during the Civil War, Worth embodied prejudices that reflected the majority view of their times.  It is Nast, however, who is remembered today, while Worth is all but forgotten.

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