These Artifacts Show the Best—And Worst—of American Election Ephemera

From trash to political treasure

Ron and Nancy
What could be more relatable than a president and first lady in bed? George W. Bush Presidential Library

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)

(George W. Bush Presidential Library)

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.

Here Lies a Bryan Opponent (1896)

(George W. Bush Presidential Library)

McKinley’s opponents targeted him on race, but the McKinley campaign struck out against Bryan for another reason: being longwinded. Bryan was known for his oratory, which an observer compared to “one great burst of artillery.”

Though Brian delivered extremely famous political speeches during his campaign, he failed to convince the American public to elect him—perhaps in part due to McKinley's campaign memorabilia, which reminded voters that Bryan might talk them to death.

"Comb Nixon Out of Your Hair" (1960)

(George W. Bush Presidential Library)

The 1960 election was bitter—so bitter that in a way, it’s still being fought. Though John F. Kennedy won the election, some historians now believe that his operatives fixed the election, stealing information about Richard Nixon’s finances and possibly tampering with elections in Texas and Illinois.

An artifact from the Kennedy campaign captures a lock of that bitterness, urging voters to comb that pesky Republican out of sight and out of the White House.

President and Peanut (1980)

(George W. Bush Presidential Library)

Long before Jimmy Carter was president, he lived on a peanut farm. (There’s even a peanut version of Carter in his hometown of Plains, Georgia.) Though some mocked him as a hillbilly, his farm roots were a vital part of his election strategy. In both of his campaigns—1976 and 1980—he used his past as a peanut farmer to show that he was down-to-earth.

But during Carter’s reelection campaign, the strategy didn't harvest results—Reagan used the recession and Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis to imply that Carter was incompetent and won the election handily.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Bed (1984)

(George W. Bush Presidential Library)

What comfier way to express your support for Reagan’s reelection than by wearing slippers depicting the president and first lady in bed? These slippers were part of Reagan’s ongoing attempt to appear folksy and relatable.

Reagan’s 1984 platform was aggressively optimistic and, some thought, slightly ridiculous—just like this image of him snuggling up with his wife.

Roosevelt Meets His Match (1912)

(George W. Bush Presidential Library)

President George Washington had the tale about his cherry tree, but President Theodore Roosevelt had his own redemption story. Legend has it that the president refused to shoot a defenseless bear cub on a hunting trip—leading to a famous editorial cartoon and the coining of the term “teddy bear.”

Roosevelt’s act of animal mercy resulted in a cute item: A coin bank that let the president shoot a penny out of a rifle. Once the penny goes into the bank, the adorable head of the scared bear pops out of the tree trunk. This item isn't related to an election—it was produced during Roosevelt's presidency. But it proved so popular that it was made for 22 years.