Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was an extraordinary talent who created the politically/socially influential political cartoon. He worked tirelessly for Harper’s Weekly, joining the weekly illustrated newspaper in 1858 at the age of 19, contributing at least one large (usually front cover) political statement and two smaller cartoons every week, for 26 years.
He wielded an enormous social influence, electing a president (Hayes) and toppling Boss Tweed. He was a staunch Republican who endlessly fought for balanced budgets, free education, and equal rights for Indians and Blacks, fair economic play to the working classes, and was viciously anti Klan. He also created the popular images of Santa Claus, Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant Democrat donkey, and the Tammany tiger. The man got a lot of things right1.
Another bit of the future that came to a pretty accurate light under his pen was this view of New York City. Printed in 1881, “New York in a Few Years from Now, View from the Bay”, shows a NYC skyline that—if the scale was returned to normal—would’ve looked pretty accurate at the turn of the century. Nast drew a grouping of large skyscrapers rising from around the battery (a ferry terminal visible at front-center), reaching about 30 stories or so. Since he was a caricaturist/cartoonist, the buildings are drawn out of scale to enhance the vision—given the other available details (including the way too tall Trinity Church lurking in the shadows), the skyline would’ve been about half the size if drawn for accuracy’s sake. But Nast wasn’t looking for accuracy, but a vision. If everything were scaled to a more accurate perspective, he would’ve been pretty close to the skyline in 1900.
It was a very commendable job by Nast, who produced the drawing at the very dawn of the modern skyscraper age, just at the very beginning of the building and design practices tat would make it possible to build structures that were dozens of stories tall. The greatest advance was the introduction of cage frame construction, which started to appear ten years earlier, but most of the other stuff necessary to have tall structures—heating and cooling capacities, electrical lighting, plumbing [with appropriate, siphon jet toilets], elevators with dependable brakes—weren’t really introduced until just after this cartoon appeared. As a matter of fact, Nast’s work even preceded the great building boom that would occur just after publication, which was a response of sorts to the depression and malaise of the middle/.late 1870’s. The greatest of these early tall buildings, the Joseph Pulitzer New York World building, looked quite like one of these Nast structures—and was built in 1889/90, rising 300 feet or so into the air.
Nast’s buildings even preceded the invention of the word “skyscraper”, which would appear in his own Harper’s Weekly in 1893.
Given his workload, Nast’s drawing was undoubtedly a quick work. Greater, grander, more science-fiction-y views o the future of NYC were to come, but generally these were almost entirely post-airplane/automobile.
Works like King’s Views of New York 2(1911) featured colossal structures with roads connecting the tops of buildings, perilously airplane-congested skies, and so on—but generally appeared after the necessary technologically-based innovations supplied more necessary imaginative/creative tools to create more incredible cities. But that’s another story. As I said, I think Nast did a marvelous job with the materials on hand.
2. See Edison Effect blog, here, for a nice post on King's Views.