Christmas Cartoons in “Harper’s Weekly,” 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This third in a series of posts highlighting the striking and compelling Christmas cartoons published in the popular publication, Harper’s Weekly, moves us into another decade, following its predecessors which looked at 1858 and 1863 editions of the magazine.

The 26 December 1874 edition from the Homestead’s holdings puts pathos and pensiveness front and center with a cover image titled “Faith—Waiting for Santa Claus.”  Taken from a watercolor by Michael Woolf, a frequent contributor to the weekly, the image shows a little girl bundled up and wedged against a projecting store window for protection against the cold with a basket next to her.

In the store window are a variety of toys, obviously beyond her means to acquire or receive, so her “waiting for Santa Claus,” takes on a particularly poignant meaning.  It is worth noting that most of the United States was mired in a deep depression that erupted in 1873, so the message of the cartoon certainly would resonate with many Americans.


Harper’s Weekly usually had several literary pieces in its issues, in the form of short stories, poems and the like, so this edition, for example, had a short story by well-known British novelist Wilkie Collins, whose The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868 and considered the first detective novel) were best sellers.

A holiday feature was the poem “The Christmas Baby” by Will Carleton, a Michigan native whose Farm Ballads collection was issued in 1873 and was widely regarded.  The poem, accompanied by images of home life, a church, and angels above the title, has ten stanzas written as if by an impoverished resident of a rural area.  Here are some of them:

Hoot! ye little rascal! ye come it on me this way

Crowdin’ yerself amongst us this blusterin’ winter’s day,

Knowin’ that we already have three of ye, an’ seven,

An’ tryin’ to make yerself out a Christmas present o’ Heaven?


Ten of ye have we know, Sir, for this world to abuse

An’ Bobbie he have no waistcoat, an’ Nellie she have no shoes,

An’ Sammie he have no shirt, Sir (I tell it to his shame),

An’ the one that was just before ye we ain’t had time to name!


An’ all of the banks be smashin’, an’ on us poor folk fall;

An’ Boss he whittles the wages when work’s to be had for all;

An’ Tom he have his foot cut off, an’ lies in a woeful plight,

An’ all of us wonders at mornin’ as what we shall eat at night


Hang it! if all the rich men I ever see or knew

Came here with all their traps, boy, an’ offered ’em for you,

I’d show ’em to the door, Sir, so quick they’d think it odd,

Before I’d sell to another my Christmas gift from God!

With these examples of holiday material reflecting the depression era, there are other examples that leaven the laments with levity.  The centerfold, by another regular cartoonist, Thomas Worth, is “A Dream of a Christmas Dinner in Five Parts.”  The humorous and humongous image begins at the upper left with the first part “Turkey Invited Out to Dine” showing a group of elves fattening up the unsuspecting bird.

The second part is “Skirmishing Against Turkey,” with the bird perched on a tree branch and appearing to enjoy a post-meal pipe as a quintet of elves, knives in hand, ascend to seize him.  One of the elves holds a broadsheet proclaiming the “Arrest for High Trees-On of Mr. Turkey Gobb.”


Part Three is “Turkey Under Fire” as the poor animal, having been dispatched without a visual to document his demise, turns in an enclosed spit rotated by three solemn-faced elves, while others are seasoning him with salt.  Others hold open a door to inspect the roasting bird and another checks the fire.

The fourth part is “Turkey’s Christmas Parade” as the cooked delight is brought in by a team of elves on a large platter followed by all manner of fixings and trimmings, including gravy, covered dishes, cider in a barrel, bottles of wine, olives, mince pie and more.

The final part shows “Turkey’s Guests,” showing a few dozen people being summoned by horn-blowing heralds as the feast is carried toward a dining room.  Naturally, there is one particularly special guest as Santa Claus rides in on a reindeer and exclaims, “I am just in time for dinner.”  At the bottom is a vignette of “The Dreamer,” a male snuggly in bed as his vivid fantasy is displayed above him.


Finally, there is a full page image by Charles Stanley Reinhart, an artist and illustrator who studied in Europe as well as with the head of the Harper’s art department.  His best-known work, “Washed Ashore,” an engraving made in 1887, won prizes and caught the attention of Van Gogh who called it “a very fine print.”

Reinhart’s “Santa Claus is Coming” is a rich and lavish depiction of a winged Father Time ringing bells at the top where a clock shows midnight and the year and the greeting of “Merry Christmas” welcome Santa as he and his reindeer-drawn sleigh loaded with toys rush with dust flying through an opening with a pair of large wood doors at the sides.  With a full moon lighting up some Gothic buildings as well as St. Nick’s arrival, the image is a striking scene.

20181215_120431 (2)

It also accompanied a sixteen-stanza poem of the same title, though there is no credit to the poet.  Here are a few examples that exemplify the author’s vivid versified flourish and which contrast some cynicism and disdain with the victory of joy and hope:

Fling wide the gates, oh Father Time,

And then ring out a Christmas chime;

Back with the bolts, unbar the door,

For Santa Claus is here once more.


Rouse up, old man! throw down the scythe;

Your aged limbs should be more lithe;

See how the fiery reindeers prance!

Stand back! and let the steeds advance


Unlock the bars, ring out the bells,

Till every one the story tells,

And spread the tidings far and near

That Santa Claus again is here.


Let Santa Claus his work begin;

With merry welcome ring him in;

Behold the loaded car of toys!

Behold the wealth of Christmas joys!


He cares not for your sneering frown,

But from his airy height smiles down,

And sees beyond your visage grim

The little eyes that dream of him


Beneath your withered touch and cold

The little hearts grow sad and old

With bitter words and sneering speech

A painful lesson you will teach


But Santa Claus is king to-night;

The air is bright with Christmas light;

He bids you ring, old Father Time,

Once more a merry Christmas chime.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, was in its own flurry of excitement as it was riding the peak of a lengthy economic book that started in the late 1860s and crested in the months following the publication of this edition of Harper’s Weekly.  The depression of 1873 seemed to have little effect on California, as a whole, due mainly to the streaking stock prices traded in San Francisco for silver mine shared in Virginia City, Nevada.


When Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, seeing the prices at their apex, decided to sell out and made several million dollars in the bargain, others rushed to follow his example and the bottom dropped out of the market, leading to a thundering crash in late August 1875.  In Los Angeles, the financial panic sent depositors flocking to the bank of Temple and Workman, which was unable to meet the demands of the run and suspending business, joined by the other commercial bank in town, Farmers and Merchants.

Despite a loan from Baldwin and the delayed reopening of their bank, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman were not able to sustain confidence in the institution and, not long after Christmas 1875, which might have provided a temporary respite from the cares that overwhelmed the two men, the bank closed and left them ruined.


The combination, then, of pointed social commentary with holiday fantasy and celebration is interesting to see, especially in comparison with the last post, which dealt with Christmas during the Civil War.  We’ll touch on this again in a couple of days when we highlight a Christmas-related artifact in the museum’s collection from 1929.


Leave a Reply