What do elections leave behind? The answer goes far beyond officials and laws—during election cycles themselves, candidates and their supporters generate plenty of swag. Most of those buttons, toys and other ephemera are thrown into the dustbin of history once the election is over. But to historians, they’re like miniature windows into how people think about politics.
“We can learn so much about our country from election ephemera,” Amy Polley Hamilton tells Smithsonian.com. She’s the curator of Path to the Presidency, a special exhibition that’s running at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas through October 9. The interactive exhibit lets visitors pretend they themselves are a presidential candidate as they test their handshake stamina, pose for campaign posters, deliver acceptance speeches with a teleprompter and take a seat in a replica of the Oval Office. But the real stars of the show are much smaller: The exhibition features ephemera from campaigns throughout the history of the United States.
“These things were made to be inexpensive and small,” says Hamilton. “They were made to be passed around.” In times before radio and television, she explains, the public had to form their opinions of candidates using printed biographies and speeches. In order to influence potential voters, people began to craft and wear everything from watch fobs to pins to help broadcast their support for candidates. To Hamilton, the story of campaign swag is as much one of technological progress as electoral passion—as new technology like photography and the automobile became common, would-be voters adapted objects to suit.
In a way, it’s miraculous that any election ephemera still exists. The objects were meant to be disposed of, especially once a campaign lost. But Path to the Presidency proves that there are still plenty of physical echoes of the campaigns of yore—and that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Every year you think that this is the worst and dirtiest campaign that has ever been,” laughs Hamilton. “But really, that started with the very first campaign.” It turns out that every campaign has its low points…and a few surviving remnants that serve as reminders of what Americans once found important. Here are a few of the exhibition’s most fascinating artifacts:
Reversible McKinley Doll (1896)
Racism and nativism were rampant in the United States in 1896, when Republican William McKinley ran against Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the general election. Bryan’s campaign spared no punches against McKinley. They struck out at his good relationships with black voters with this doll, which aligns McKinley with black Americans. Flip it one way, and the doll shows a black woman. Flip it the other way, and it shows McKinley.
Though McKinley’s belief that African-Americans and immigrants should vote and be part of the American experiment won him the election, it was an unpopular stance for many of his opponents.