Size and placement of Nast cartoons

Thomas Nast’s influence at Harper’s Weekly grew steadily after the Civil War, and as he moved into caricature as his preferred technique, Nast earned Harper’s affectionate title as “Our Special Artist.” Special indeed, since Nast is widely credited for tripling Harper’s circulation. Fletcher Harper, founder and editor of the family’s weekly publication, gave Nast free reign.

Nast’s cartoons were published in four distinct types or formats. The cover (most visible), a center double-paged spread (the largest and equally prestigious as the cover), an interior full-paged cartoon (with more room than the cover,  no masthead) and a small, square cartoon tucked in the back section of the advertising or classified section.

Normally, each of the larger format illustrations corresponded to and or enhanced a planned article or editorial essay. Nast’s illustrations often took the lead, inspiring the editorial. It is difficult to know exactly which came first in each issue, but Nast was not bound by any editorial oversight on what subject (or target) he could explain or exploit. 

Whether word or image sparked the lede, the weekly publishing schedule allowed time for editors to coordinate cartoon and article accordingly, giving it the needed prominence in the first half of the issue. In almost all cases, Nast’s cartoons are in typically landscape or portrait orientation and are full-sized in proportion, with a single page measuring  11 X 16 inches.

Yet, some of Nast’s most powerful images are smaller 6-inch squares relegated to the back of the issue. Why are they there?

While definitive reasons are difficult to ascertain , three theories emerge as possibilities and all may overlap and factor into the smaller, rear position. First, the advertisement section was popular, and second, the square format was blocked out to receive last-minute visual interpretations of breaking news. This block could also serve as teasers for news to be expanded on in the next issue. The smaller size could be quickly drawn by Nast or any of his other artist-colleagues, and a comical, filler cartoon, without time sensitivity could substitute or sacrifice its space if needed.  

This example from Harper’s Weekly was published on March 27, 1886 and shows how a smaller cartoon with a serious topic appeared within the rear classified section.

Typically, as Harper’s magazine progressed past  its centerfold, the pages featured literary excerpts and stories. This is not surprising as foundation of Harper’s empire began with novels and book publication. Harper’s Weekly began with news and opinion and typically segued into cultural reporting and concluding with a softer, more literary section.  Closing with a hard-news visual served as a Coda — a stark reminder jolting the reader from travel tales, other cultures and literary fantasy back to the real world in the United States.

A third reason also must be offered. The 1880s marked the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The passage of the act and the dislike of presidential candidate James G. Blaine had caused Nast, a life-long Republican, a great deal of angst (although one might argue hidden delight!) and a much-noticed shift to endorse the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland. This departure in political alliance, which Harper’s editor George Curtis publicly shared, shocked the magazine’s base of Republican readership, but it hurt Nast more than his publisher. Curtis admired Nast, but Nast’s unbridled autonomy in drawing what he wanted, frustrated Curtis. Nast had been nurtured and encouraged by founding publisher and editor Fletcher Harper to go full tilt, but after Fletcher Harper’s death in 1877, Curtis, as new editor, sought to reign Nast in, desiring the “special artist” to soften some of his hard edges of attack. Therefore,  Nast’s images, though likely offered, appeared less frequently. By the middle of the decade, new technologies and artists willing to use them vied for column space and got it.  Nast pursued other interests, including a failed attempt as his own magazine, Nast’s Weekly. Nast’s last cartoon with Harper’s Weekly appeared this same year, 1886, with the Christmas issue.

“Justice for the Chinese” 1886

Lady Justice holds scale of dead white man and Chinese man “Justice for the Chinese” 27 March 1886 by Thomas Nast. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, shared under Public Domain license

In the winter of 1885 and the following summer of 1886, the Chinese were driven out of the Northwest Territories, in what is now Washington and Oregon State. After the Gold Rush, many of the Chinese driven out of California moved upwards into the Northern territory.

A violent outbreak in the mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming occurred on Sept. 2, 1885. See Here’s a Pretty Mess! (in Wyoming).

In Seattle, Chinese found mining and railroad work. As in Wyoming, the Knights of Labor, an organization with a large Catholic membership were visible actors arguing for an eight-hour work day. To their credit, they called for an end to child and prison labor exploitation, but they were no friend of the Chinese, a race of people the Knights of Labor deemed inferior, and whose willingness to work at a reduced rate was regarded as unfair competition toward white labor interests.

Venture capitalists in the mining and railroad knew exactly what they were doing when they recruited the hard-working Chinese to work for less. The employers cared little about the reaction of organized labor. It is less clear how fully aware the Chinese as pawns to be manipulated by management to break labor union demands.

As in many other industrial towns, mob-pressure ultimately broke out against Chinese labor, and the frustrations found release through mob violence. White workers demanded the Chinese leave. Many Chinese fled to the Portland area where they were welcomed and fit in with the foreign trade atmosphere of the city.

Of the Seattle incident, Harper’s editorial concluded, “It is a national disgrace that having excluded Chinese immigration by law, the hundred thousand Chinese who are so unlucky as to be caught in the country are outraged by foreign mobs, while the government politely regrets that it can do nothing. The coming of the Chinese may be a curse. But if it be a curse, it is now prohibited by law, and honest Americans upon the Pacific slope should be the first to defend those who are here against brutal lawlessness.”

Nast’s second to the last cartoon on the Chinese was drawn four years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Eleven years elapsed since he brought Columbia or her any of her relatives (here in the form of Lady Justice) out of retirement to stand strong on behalf of the Chinese. Denis Kearney and his white labor cohorts achieved their goal, but the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act failed to satiate their fear and mob activities against the Chinese persisted. They wanted all Chinese out, even those few Chinese who met the legal requirements to remain in the U.S.

In the cartoon, Chinese men lay prostrate on the ground from recent violence. On the right, structures smolder in the distance. In her right hand, Lady Justice heaves a large sword as white workers on the ground notice her interrupting presence and begin to leave.

The weighing pans of Lady Justice’s scales are incomplete. One of her pans is missing. From this end of the scale, a white man dangles from the neck as if lynched or hung in order to compensate for the death of the Chinese victim. The dead Chinese figure is cradled upon a bowl-shaped container. His queue hangs over the edge. His hands rest on his chest as if posed in death. The arms of the scales, however, are in balance. Justice has brought her incomplete measuring instrument to the violent scene and weighed each victim despite the missing component.  There are no other obvious white victims. Her broken scales signal that the Justice system is broken and has failed the Chinese workers.

Despite her faulty scales, Nast’s Lady Justice balances the scale with a white victim.  The white man obviously weighs more, yet the atrocities are equal in her eyes. Did Lady Justice scoop up a white perpetrator in a biblical “eye for an eye” moment, exacting justice despite a broken instrument? Has she turned the tables on the white workers, adapting their tactics of lynching to send her message?
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