The Swag and Swagger Behind American Presidential Campaigns

From a coloring book to a painted axe, election ephemera remind us of the hard-fought elections of long ago

The 1920 presidential election was the first in which women from all states could vote after the 19th Amendment was ratified. This ad ran in the November 1920 issue of Ladies Home Journal. NMAH
A wooden axe used in campaign parades during the election of 1860, presented the imagery for Abraham Lincoln as “Old Abe the Rail Splitter,” a down-to-earth common man and served as a powerful symbol of free labor and individual enterprise. NMAH
A "Hurrah for Lincoln" campaign torch, used during Abraham Lincoln's 1860 campaign, was carried during massive, emotionally charged political parades. One observer wrote that the "Torch-light procession is undoubtedly the largest and most imposing thing of its kind ever witnessed in Chicago." NMAH
John Hanks, Abraham Lincoln's cousin, wrote an affidavit asserting the authenticity of this rail post, "split by A. Lincoln and myself in 1829 and 30." NMAH
Supporters of the Kennedy-Johnson Presidential ticket wore these hats at the 1960 Democratic convention where John Kennedy spoke of his goals as the beginning of a "New Frontier." NMAH
In Broward County, Florida, during the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore, Judge Robert A. Rosenberg used a magnifying glass to examine ballots during a recount. NMAH
Nixon Presidential Campaign Pin 1968 NMAH
The 1841 William Henry Harrison almanac featured tales of Harrison's valor and morality, as well as several pieces of music to celebrate the candidate. NMAH
A presidential Campaign Luggage Tag, 1904 for Theodore Roosevelt and his running mate Charles Fairbanks NMAH
This advertisement appeared in the November 1920 issue of Needlecraft Magazine, urging women to vote for the Republican presidential ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. NMAH
Patricia Hawley decorated and wore this hat while serving as a Wisconsin delegate to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. NMAH
Following the ratification of the 19th amendment, this badge was worn by women supporting Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding in 1920. NMAH
During the 1972 Presidential campaign, this ecology coloring book was distributed as a public service by the “McGovern For President” campaign to demonstrate George McGovern’s interest and concern for the environment. NMAH
The Ulysses S. Grant Campaign Badge, 1868, featured a tintype photograph of Grant and Schuyler Colfax in a golden colored frame featuring a spread-winged eagle, flanked by two golden American flags, and a scroll “E Pluribus Unum.” NMAH
Samuel J. Tilden Campaign Medal, 1876 NMAH
Rutherford B. Hayes Campaign Medal, 1876 NMAH
An 1864 ballot for George McClellan, who ran on an anti-Lincoln and anti-Emancipation Proclamation platform and left open the possibility of a negotiated peace with the South NMAH
Hoping to inspire the most apathetic voter to cast a ballot for their candidate Abraham Lincoln, marchers in 1860 carried banners lit from inside with small oil lamps in torchlight parades. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
A cloth banner from 1800 celebrated the victory of Thomas Jefferson with the phrase "T. Jefferson President of the United States / John Adams is no more." NMAH
An 1864 election poster shows portraits of the candidates for president and vice president, their parties’ platforms, and the candidates’ letters accepting their parties’ nominations. NMAH

America’s founding is rooted in the power of the people to select their own leader. Efforts to sway the vote—via gritty campaigns driven by emotion, piles of cash and brutal, drag-out battles—are equally American.

Years, decades and even centuries later, the essence of these fights can often be glimpsed through their ephemera—the signs, slogans and campaign buttons that both bolster true believers and aim to coax the reluctant into the fold. These objects can suggest campaign strategy as well as the temperament of the times. And they provide snapshots into that moment of possibility—physical artifacts with a potentially very short shelf life, infused as they are with the confidence of victory.

Nowhere are these stories better preserved than at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The Museum’s political campaign collection is the largest holding of presidential campaign material in the United States and includes banners, signs, campaign ephemera, novelties, documents, photographs, voter registration material, ballots and voting machines. 

The museum’s collections include artifacts that demonstrate an individual’s support for a specific politician, and reflect the pride with which many Americans have regarded their chosen presidential candidate. Among the item to be found at the museum is a ribbon advertising the Harding-Wilson ticket of 1920 also celebrates the newly-passed 19th amendment, which gave women the constitutional right to vote. A wooden axe carried in support of “railsplitter” Abraham Lincoln in an 1860 campaign parade assures the viewer that “Good time coming boys.” A banner from the election of 1800, one of the oldest surviving textiles carrying partisan imagery, glorifies the victory of Thomas Jefferson while declaring—gloating—“John Adams is no more."

Other artifacts serve as a physical record of major electoral events: the infamous “chads” from Broward County ballots were crucial to determining the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

And some objects, like a coloring book about ecology produced by the 1972 McGovern campaign, demonstrate the different ways that political campaigns worked to connect with voters.  

Megan Smith, who is an interpretive specialist at the National Museum of American History, wrote this article for Zócalo Public Square.

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