03 July 2010

Origins: Do we know?

While we easily recognise symbols used as brands today, do you ever wonder where some of the images originated?

What of the U.S. Republican parties' elephant, the Democrats' donkey, a fat, jolly Santa Claus and a lean, goatee-wearing Uncle Sam?

Do you ever look at recent arrivals to your homeland and wonder what contribution they'll make?

ead on about a man I first discovered in my Journalism studies in the 1980's.

Early July is a patriotic time for North America and a good time to consider Thomas Nast, an immigrant who had a huge influence on politics and corruption in New York City, on the abolition of slavery, on presidential elections. Thomas Nast's cartoons in Harper's Weekly magazine were instrumental in winning four presidential elections—for Abraham Lincoln in 1864, for Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872, and for Grover Cleveland in 1884. Columbia, as the symbol of America, was created by Nast.

Early days: Thomas Nast was a German-born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist who is considered to be the "Father of the American Cartoon." He was the son of a trombonist in the 9th regiment Bavarian band, who emigrated to America in 1849.

We all have to start somewhere. When my grandfather
was looking in to genealogical records he was given some advice.
"Don't look back too far. You might not like what you find."

A large share of Nast's income came from lectures. He was one of the first to illustrate his talks by drawing rapidly on a large sheet of paper as he spoke. This was, perhaps, one of the earliest attempts at "chalk talks."Imagine what he could have done with a whiteboard?!

Harper's Weekly never did put restrictions on Nast's works. It was obvious that their circulation increased as a result of Nast, so they didn't want to edit or censor his material -- he had that much power.

Much of what we think of as traditional Christmas images were pulled together, developed and popularised by Nast. We'll revisit that theme in December!

Wikipedia says.

"In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as the United States' Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador in South America. During a deadly yellow fever outbreak, Nast stayed to the end helping numerous diplomatic missions and businesses escape the contagion. At age 62, in 1902, he died of yellow fever contracted there. His body was returned to the United States where he was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York."

Nast evolved from a struggling student of German origin to an illustrator who influenced politics and battled corruption and injustice. He spoke for freedom and equality, possibly because he appreciated the ideals of The New World more than others who took their freedom for granted. Nast ended his life serving the State Department and people at risk.

What other famous immigrants have changed the course of American history?

Other than the original First Nations people of North America, the Indians, all Americans are immigrants or of immigrant descent. As I work with refugees in New Zealand, I have to wonder what their grandchildren will do, how they will contribute. It's exciting to see the process repeated.

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