The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

April Fools’ Day, 1864: The Cartoon Antics of Thomas Nast

Happy New Year!

…April Fool! Though, according to the Julian calendar developed by Julius Caesar, April 1 was designated the first day of the year. When Pope Gregory XIII instituted a new calendar in 1564 with January 1 as the start of the new year, adherents of the Gregorian calendar ridiculed the old-timers who continued to celebrate April 1 as New Year’s Day, labelling them “fools” and heaping pranks upon them. This tradition of practical jokes and pranks continues today, though in harmless fun and enjoyment for all (hopefully).



Printed in the April 2, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast’s depiction of “The First of April, 1864incorporates political commentary, Civil War satire, and general foolery. In the top insets, we see the antics of Union soldiers fooling their fellow men regarding the Confederate Army’s nearby whereabouts (top left), and Union sailors likewise blocking their comrades’ view of the enemy (top right). The bottom left inset depicts a husband and wife who have switched appearances, the wife sporting a coat, top hat, and mustache while her husband wears a dress and bonnet. In the center images, people have attached signs and strings with objects to others behind their backs. Nast gives the viewer a sense of his feelings for the Peace Democrats of the North, who were proponents of a cease-fire and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy, by depicting them as geese and donkeys in the top center image.



Thomas Nast, known as the “Father of the American Cartoon,” was a German-born American whose politically-charged cartoons wielded considerable influence over public opinion. His cartoons, many published in Harper’s Weekly, helped bring down the infamous “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall and influenced the elections of Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872. Nast is also noted for creating the Republican Party symbol of the elephant and the modern depiction of Santa Claus.

To view this woodcut print in greater detail, visit the library in person and see if you can decipher more April Fools’ Day trickery in these scenes!


permalink | Published: Friday, 1 April, 2016, 12:00 AM


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