The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



Admiral Santa Norton Claus

The illustration of the Emperor shown below is included in the Paintings gallery of ARENA, the Campaign's digital Archive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film.

Yesterday, for reasons that will become clear, Jacob Fugger, a friend of The Emperor's Bridge Campaign who lives in New Jersey, sent us a link to a recent article about artist and illustrator Charles William Saalburg (1865-1950).

From the article, by John Adcock, we learn that Saalburg was born and spent his childhood in San Francisco. His father, William, was a successful editor and printer — so the seeds of the young boy's interest in printing and illustration were planted early. Having left school after the fourth grade, Saalburg became an apprentice lithographer at 16. It appears that, shortly after that, he made his way to New York to hone his skills.

As an artist, Saalburg spent most of his professional life in Chicago, New Jersey and New York. But he was back in San Francisco from 1889 to 1892 — and during this period he worked as a staff illustrator at The Wasp, the famous satirical magazine.

Later in life, Saalburg penned a brief memoir for The New York Times. The article, "San Francisco of the '80s Abounded in Notables," was published on 3 January 1926. Either Saalburg's memory was fading a bit, by this time, or his editors were a little lazy: Many of the figures he describes, including Twain, either had long since left San Francisco by the 1880s or didn't get there until later.

Emperor Norton died in 1880. But, of course, he reigned in the streets of San Francisco throughout Saalburg's childhood. This seems to be where both Saalburg's recollection and his undated illustration of the Emperor — which appears with the New York Times piece — come from.

Saalburg imagines Emperor Norton as an admiral-y Santa Claus figure. To the extent that Saalburg's Emperor is the hazily but fondly remembered Emperor of his childhood, the image is undeniably sweet — and probably true.

How many kids like Charles Saalsburg must have seen Emperor Norton as Santa Claus?

Undated illustration of Emperor Norton as imagined by Charles William Saalburg (1865-1950).  Source: Charles W. Saalburg, "San Francisco of the '80s Abounded in Notables,"  The New York Times , 3 January 1926 ( pdf ).

Undated illustration of Emperor Norton as imagined by Charles William Saalburg (1865-1950). Source: Charles W. Saalburg, "San Francisco of the '80s Abounded in Notables," The New York Times, 3 January 1926 (pdf).

Here's how Saalburg recalled the Emperor in The New York Times:

We had great "Emperor Norton," too. He looked like Santa Claus — round, fat, white-whiskered. He wandered about in a costume he must have picked up in some theatrical shop. It was a medley of uniforms — an Admiral's gold-laced hat, a General's coat, huge epaulets and strings of medals. He carried the world's largest knotted cane, and he never spoke to a soul. His favorite pasttime was issuing proclamations in the name of Emperor Norton. He would go into a restaurant and hand the proprietor a proclamation, ordering a meal for the Emperor, and he always got it. Now and then he would declare a holiday for the city.  People gave him money occasionally, but no one ever solved the mystery of where he lived or why he thought himself an emperor.

All of which is about half true, probably less.

Today, for better and worse, people tend to believe what they wish to believe about Emperor Norton — history be damned.

The more things change.... 

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