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Nast was born on Sept. 27, 1840, and emigrated from Landau, Bavaria, when he was 6 years old together with his mother and older sister.
His concept of Santa Claus was drawn from his childhood memories of Germany. Biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, in his book Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures (1904), recorded that on Christmas Eve "… came the German Santa Claus, Pelze-Nicol, leading a child dressed as the Christkind, and distributing toys and cakes, or switches, according as the parents made report. It was this Pelze-Nicol – a fat, fur-clad, bearded old fellow, at whose hands he doubtless received many benefits – that the boy in later years was to present to use as his conception of the true Santa Claus – a pictorial type which shall long endure." One of Nast’s most popular illustrations of Santa Claus is reproduced above.
Kevin Rawlings, writing for the Civil War Times, also described a scene where Nast was suffering a type of artist’s block in coming up with a picture of Santa Claus. Nast discussed the predicament with his sister Bertha, a New York City school teacher. They reminisced about their early childhood in Germany and talked about the German Pelznikel. Bertha also mentioned that her classes loved to prepare for Christmas each year by reading Clement Clarke Moore’s "A visit From St. Nicholas."
It is certainly possible that Nast was also influenced, at least in part, by Irving’s The History of New York. Early in the book, Irving describes a conflict between the Long Pipes and the Short Pipes. Moore put a Short Pipe in the mouth of his Santa, while Nast preferred the Long Pipe. Whether this comes from the New York influence or from his boyhood in Germany is not known.
He is best known for his attacks in Harper's Weekly on William "Boss" Tweed and the corrupt Democratic machine in New York City in the early 1870s, but previously he had also successfully illustrated Civil War scenes for the same magazine. Nast invented the idea of the elephant to represent the Republican party and popularized the use of the donkey to represent the Democratic party.
New techniques of art reproduction made Nast's woodcut style obsolete, and his popularity faded by the time he quit Harper's Weekly in 1886.
In 1890, Nast put together a volume of his illustrations titled Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, which included 66 of his Christmas illustrations (including a few specifically drawn for that book). Although long out of print, Dover Publications reprinted the book in 1978 under the title Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings; it was still available in 1999. The Dover edition also included three illustrations from the 1886 book by George P. Webster, Santa Claus and His Works.
In 1902 he was appointed U.S. Consul in Guayaquil, Ecuador, but he died there of yellow fever on December 7, 1902, the day following the traditional Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Dec. 6.
His grandson Thomas Nast St. Hill wrote that "Thomas Nast’s original sketches were highly valued by recipients and they often took the place of formal correspondence. He blamed his reluctance to write on his pen, which he said, did not know how to spell! He was a notoriously bad speller and sometimes mistakes crept into his captions…. Fortunately, Sarah Nast corrected most of his misspelled captions before they appeared."
The allegation that Thomas Nast was illiterate is unfounded, as proved by his many letters to home during the months that he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador (however, the spelling was likely enhanced before publication).
In 1956, the United States Embassy marked the military barracks in Landau, Bavaria, where Thomas Nast was born, with a bronze plaque, a bas-relief bust of the artist, with an inscription noting that it was a ‘gift to the German people in friendship and in memory of Thomas Nast.’ The week following the presentation was celebrated as Nast Week, the 116th anniversary of his birth. And a few years later, the United States Department of the Interior placed another bronze tablet on Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, designating it a registered Historic Landmark. Outside the grounds, next to the street curb, is a sign telling passersby that from 1872 to 1902 this was the home of Thomas Nast, who exposed the Tweed Ring and created the Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey.
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