What Ten Artifacts from the Smithsonian Collections Can Tell Us About the Crazy History of American Politics

A massive collection of campaign materials dating from 1789 reveals that little has changed in how America shows its affection for their candidate

Campaign collections include boxes of Macaroni and Cheese for both parties. (NMAH/SI)

Democracy is a loud, chaotic and flashy affair. Presidential candidates have emblazoned their names on T-shirts, socks, underwear, potholders, calendars, coffee mugs and bumperstickers, while supporters have rallied by the thousands in the streets and at conventions.

The nation’s first president was sent to office on the strength of 69 votes, cast by a few dozen members of the electoral college. At the time, the Constitution gave only white, property-owning men the right to be an elector. While all U.S. citizens now get to cast a ballot in a popular vote, not much else has changed in campaigning over the centuries.

That’s evident in the 100,000-plus items collected by curators at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and dating from before the American Revolution to this year's Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. The items—ranging from George Washington inaugural buttons to a “We ‘C’ Ted Cruz for President” brochure—are primarily housed in archival filing cabinets and drawers behind the locked doors in a fourth floor storage area at the museum.

Some of the artifacts, including an automated voting machine invented in 1898 and a 19th century glass ballot box, are on view throughout the election year in the museum’s lobby as part of the exhibit “Hooray for Politics.”

In 1984, two of the museum's curators Larry Bird and Harry Rubinstein began traveling to the national conventions, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in search of items for the collections—sometimes literally asking for the shirt off someone’s back. Most of the artifacts have been donated by political activists, or by journalists or collectors—people with the "cigar boxes full of memorabilia," says Rubinstein, who is chair of the museum’s division of political history.

“The best part of things like that is they come with stories,” adds Lisa Kathleen Graddy, deputy chair of the division. And that helps the museum tell the tale of American political life—the good, the bad and the ugly.

It's Not a Campaign Without Buttons


Campaign buttons have been around since the first presidential campaign. As George Washington made his way from Mount Vernon to New York for his swearing in, vendors along the route offered up commemorative brass or copper buttons to those who showed up to see the first president and celebrate his election. Some buttons had “G.W.” in the center, encircled by “Long Live the President” – a retort to the British “Long Live the King.” Even if you weren’t a part of the official activities, “you could actually participate by putting on a small button,” says curator Rubenstein. That participation is a hallmark of Democracy, he says. Buttons have been de rigueur for campaigns ever since, whether it’s a photograph of a stilted-looking Abraham Lincoln, a cartoonish set of Theodore Roosevelt’s grinning teeth, or a Model-T Ford for Gerald Ford.

About Alicia Ault
Alicia Ault

Alicia Ault is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post and Wired. When not chasing down a story from our nation's capital, she takes in the food, music and culture of southwest Louisiana from the peaceful perch of her part-time New Orleans home.

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