From grocery clerk to one of the most influential cartoonists in America is the condensed story of the life of Charles Nelan.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Charles Nelan went through the usual course of schooling and then, able to read and write, went to work for a grocer at a small but sure salary. It is said that he spent most of the salary and much of the grocer’s time in making sketches of the customers who patronized the store. And it was this early work with the pencil that gave birth to his ambition to become an artist.
Confident that he could draw, the young man saved enough money to take him to New York, and as soon as he set foot in that city he asked the first person he met to direct him to the National Academy of Design. There he was enrolled as a student. He proved such an apt pupil that at the end of the first year he was awarded the Elliot medal.
The end of his first year in New York found him without money and he was forced to return to his parents’ home in Akron. His father objected to his continuing his art studies and insisted that the young man return to the grocery wagon. For the following six years young Nelan worked as a grocer’s assistant, but all of this time he was saving his money and was making a close study of human nature. In after years he said that the many odd characters he had met while a grocer’s clerk aided him in his work as a cartoonist.
After his six long years in the grocery Nelan was able to return to the art field and he went to Cleveland, where he obtained a position on the Cleveland Press. This was in 1888.
While in Cleveland he was offered the opportunity to draw cartoons for the Scripps-McRae chain of newspapers and in this way he won fame in the middle west.
In 1897 Nelan was called to New York to take the place of Charles G. Bush, who was leaving the Herald to go to the World. It was on the Herald that Nelan began to make his big hits.
He was a new man on the Herald when the war with Spain broke out and the many stirring days that preceded the declaration of war gave him his opportunity. A book of his Spanish war cartoons was published and enjoyed a large sale.
Following this the Philadelphia North American offered him a splendid inducement to go to the city of brotherly love and he accepted the offer. This was in the fall of 1900.
Factional politics in the state of Pennsylvania was boiling over at the time and Nelan flung himself into the turmoil with great energy. From that time on until the spring of 1904 there was not an issue of the North American without a cartoon by Nelan.
Nelan was especially fond of drawing the character Uncle Sam. He had studied this character until he regarded one of his drawings of Uncle Sam as one of his best pieces. The same might be said of the attention he devoted to the characters John Bull and the G.O.P. elephant.
Nelan’s associates in the North American office remember him as a kind, gentle, big hearted man with none of the disagreeable eccentricities so often found attached to a genius. He was charitable in his judgment and upright in his personal relations, called no man his enemy and tried always to help others.
He died, after a short illness, at Clay Springs, Ga., December 7 1904.