Tag Archives: 1869

Celebrating Thanksgiving: two coasts – two interpretations!

A direct contrast of how the American East and West coast differed toward the Chinese, and other immigrant groups, is shown in two illustrations of an American holiday, both titled Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.  These two cartoons demonstrate how a.) influential Harper’s Weekly was as a publication across the entire nation and b.) how differently these regions approached the issue of immigration and communicated their opinions to their audience. (Double-click images to enlarge viewing).

Harper’s enjoyed a national circulation. The San Francisco Wasp catered to the proclivities and prejudices of its local readership. Wasp historian Richard West writes that there is little evidence that The Wasp was distributed east of the Rockies, though a few issues must have been transported by long distance readers. Nast’s comings and goings were documented in California newspapers. As Nast’s popularity and celebrity grew, other artists, including those employed at The Wasp, enjoyed poking fun of Nast in caricature. Eight years after Nast drew his utopian drawing of an all inclusive America, The Wasp responded with its own version.

In 1863, Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. However, the Civil War interrupted national observance of the holiday as southern resentment lingered, preventing old Lincoln adversaries from fully accepting the proclamation. Nast’s Thanksgiving illustration was published one year before it became a national holiday in widespread practice.

Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner, 20 November, 1869, by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, Source: Library of Congress
Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner, 20 November 1869, by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, Source: Library of Congress

Nast’s large woodcut encapsulates the artist’s Radical Republican vision of America after the Civil War. “Nast, Harper’s Weekly and the Republicans they represented did not or could not acknowledge the value of different cognitive, verbal, and social styles, or the sociology behind those differences. They assumed that a universal standard of civility was both natural and necessary” (Hills 118). Nast forms this ideal into an all-inclusive American feast. In the lower corners the sentiments, “Come One Come All,” and “Free and Equal” set the inclusive tone.

At the head of the table is Uncle Sam. He carves a large turkey while an array of nationalities and immigrants politely wait to be served. Universal suffrage and self-governance are featured as the decorative centerpiece. On the back wall, Nast includes his heroes Lincoln and Grant, who flank a center portrait of George Washington, framed by Liberty and Justice. At the table, opposite the host, is Columbia, Nast’s favorite personification of America’s values and promise. Columbia’s kindly face is turned toward her Chinese male guest and his wife and child. It is a very unusual scene since most Chinese in America were men whose families remained in China.

imageRounding out the holiday banquet are representatives of an array of races and religions waiting patiently to begin the feast. The work is more an illustration than an editorial cartoon, the genre from which Nast would later earn international fame with his caricatures of William A. Tweed. Only the Irishman exhibits any hint of mild caricature that could be seen as derogatory. Nast would become highly critical of Irish Americans, but he includes an Irish couple as deserving guests. Nast includes the stereotype to make clear to his audience of Protestant Americans, that Irish Americans had right to be at the table. Nast does not draw the Irishman’s wife in “Bridget” caricature and she is attractive.[1] Babies speckle the drawing. This is a family portrait.

The guests represent many races and ethnicities and they dine at the table as equals. Nast does not insert them as mere tokens. He imbues them with respect and dignity. They are people capable of relationships and human emotion. The guests at this American banquet are all different, yet bounded by their common humanity.

Covered dishes everywhere wait to be unveiled. At America’s table, there is enough for all to be served. Behind Uncle Sam is a large painting titled “Welcome” which depicts Castle Garden, the processing center for all immigrants in New York City at the time.

This image represents Nast’s true political, utopian philosophy —his belief in a united America and the potential for the nation’s promise.

In 1877,  eight years after Nast’s work, George Frederick Keller produced an identically titled cartoon, undoubtedly a direct spoof of Nast’s holiday illustration. This tattered example (the only apparent extant copy) is seen below:

Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving, by G. F. Keller, San Francisco Wasp. Library of Congress, Collection: The Chinese in California 1877

The two artists differed in the power and autonomy their editors extended. By 1869, Nast had become a local celebrity had little editorial oversight. Unencumbered by owner/general editor Fletcher Harper (much to the chagrin of Harper’s news editor George Curtis who wanted more artistic control) Nast enjoyed free artistic rein. It is generally accepted among Nast and Harper’s scholars that Nast’s images reflected his personal beliefs rather than a directive from his editors or publishers. Richard West has suggested that The San Francisco Wasp artist G.F. Keller only drew what he was assigned. The fact is, little is known about the artist’s political feelings and there is no indication that Keller had the editorial impunity that Nast enjoyed.

Keller’s image includes several international cultures present at the holiday table. Each male guest at the table is feasting upon his national dish, indicating a refusal to assimilate. There are no wives and children joining them.

Keller's Chinese man dines on a rat
Keller’s Chinese man dines on a rat

Front and center, an Englishman with long sideburns and hand-held spectacles is aghast as he watches a Chinese man begins to dine on a rat.

Columbia, wearing the outfit of a cook, sassily stands at the threshold of the kitchen and dining room. Her character is the most faintly drawn. No one is dining on the same food. Hats of many countries dangle from hooks on the wall. A very racialized African American butler preens as he serves Uncle Sam the holiday meal —the turkey. Interestingly, it is not cooked, indicating a lack of civilization and raw hunger. Uncle Sam represents the ruling Republican government and prefers the company of barbarians. Keller’s Uncle Sam leans back, utensils at the ready, eager to dig into his bird. The holiday meals and experiences are not shared at this table. Unlike the Nast drawing, where everyone waits until Uncle Sam carves the turkey, here the guests dig into their own individual feasts. No one is waiting for the host to start. They have no manners. They possess no decorum. The message is clear: it is a mistake to include these outsiders at America’s table.

[1] The prevailing Irish stereotype in New York was of lower-class, monkey-faced simpleton. Nast likely employed the slightly simian look in this work because his audience would not have been able to distinguish the Irish from the English without the stereotype. This was one of Nast’s kinder renditions of the Irish. His animosity toward the Irish would be developed or artistically realized when New York politics saw a larger Irish role.

2. For a very fine account and amazing examples of The Wasp illustrations, I recommend Richard West’s book The San Francisco Wasp An Illustrated History. It is a must have for anyone interested in political art or nineteenth century cartooning and illustrations. West remains the definitive historian on The Wasp and he is often cited in many scholarly works on editorial cartooning, including Nast.

Works cited

“Pacific Chivalry” 1869

This is Nast’s first cartoon of a Chinese immigrant or sojourner in the West Coast. The cartoon establishes Nast’s sympathies toward the Chinese.

Pacific Chivalry, Harper's Weekly, 7 August, 1869
Pacific Chivalry, Harper’s Weekly, 7 August 1869

Pacific Chivalry sets the western locale and places a central focus on the unique hairstyle or “queue” of Chinese men. During the Manchurian takeover of the Ming Dynasty, it was decreed that Chinese men shave their heads with the exception of a part of the back of the head where a long ponytail, often braided, would remain. In times of battle, the “queue” helped to distinguish Manchu warriors from the enemy. Chinese men faced execution if they did not grow a queue (Spence 38).

In the United States, the queue was a subject of fascination that added to the mystique and perceived feminization of Chinese men who were often “depicted as lacking virility.” In the male-dominated world of western gold mining “Chinese men became targets of white men’s fears of homosexuality or the objects of their desire” (Pfaelzer 13).

Unknown terror awaits this Chinese figure as he attempts to flee from a white aggressor. Wearing a hat that bears the name California, the white laborer bears his teeth in a determined grimace.  In his right hand, he raises a whip – a variation of a cat-o-nine whip, believed to have originated to punish African slaves during the U.S. slave trade.  He has lifted his left leg to counterbalance his swing and prepares to strike his Chinese victim.  His left hand grips the Chinese queue and prevents the Chinese from escape. The force of pulling on the hair elongates the Chinese man’s head.

Shapes of skulls were thought to be indicative of intelligence and placement in an evolutionary hierarchy by stretching out the skull of a Chinese man, the perpetrator, and perhaps the artist offers the Chinese different than the standard perception for human normality. Though he is not drawn as overtly Irish, the working man fits the look that Nast establishes for white labor – gruff, bearded, burly and dominating. The look was repeated in The Chinese Question, 18 February 1871. and other cartoons. It should be noted that the Knights of Labor, an organization formed for white labor interests in western states and territories, and often the instigating agent for violence against the Chinese, did have a large Irish Catholic membership. (See Here’s a Pretty Mess).

The Chinese man is startled by his capture. His fearful expression further distorted by the pulling from the back of his scalp.  His sun hat, the douli, has fallen to the ground and his hands are open in a defensive posture, though the threat has come from behind.

To the right, along the railroad tracks rests a small building on the edge of what resembles a small mining camp. The words on the building pronounces, “Courts of Justice Closed to Chinese. Extra Taxes to Yellow Jack.”

Nast, of course, is mocking California’s definition of justice and the battery of local laws passed by the new state to scare, threaten and restrict Chinese and opportunities in the gold mines, in society and in business.

Nast draws a contrast from Pacific form of “chivalry” compared to from the respectful way Columbia introduces the Chinese to American society.

What fate awaits this Chinese man is up to the reader to decide. Will he be beaten, robbed, driven out of the mining camp, out of town, or sexually abused is not known. With this image, Nast clearly asserts something terrible will occur. “Nast condemned this treatment as an affront to the values of an open society” (Keller 108).

Works cited