Thomas Nast was a German-born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon”. He was the scourge of Democratic Representative “Boss” Tweed and the Tammany Hall Democratic party political machine. Among his notable works were the creation of the modern version of Santa Claus (based on the traditional German figures of Sankt Nikolaus and Weihnachtsmann) and the political symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party (GOP). Contrary to popular belief, Nast did not create Uncle Sam (the male personification of the American people), Columbia (the female personification of American values), or the Democratic donkey, though he did popularize these symbols through his artwork. Nast was associated with the magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1859 to 1860 and from 1862 until 1886.
Nast was born in the barracks of Landau, Germany (now in Rhineland-Palatinate), the last child of Appolonia (Abriss) and Joseph Thomas Nast. He had a sister named Andie; two other siblings died before he was born. His father, a trombonist in the Bavarian 9th regiment band, held political convictions that put him at odds with the Bavarian government. In 1846, Joseph Nast left Landau, enlisting first on a French man-of-war and subsequently on an American ship. He sent his wife and children to New York City, and at the end of his enlistment in 1850 he joined them there.
Nast attended school in New York City from the age of six to fourteen. He did poorly at his lessons, but his passion for drawing was apparent from an early age. In 1854, he was enrolled for about a year of study with Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann, and then at the school of the National Academy of Design. In 1856, he started working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. His drawings appeared for the first time in Harper’s Weekly on March 19, 1859, when he illustrated a report exposing police corruption.