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.

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