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
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.
The First Campaign Swag Was a Log Cabin (And It Wasn't Lincoln's)
In 1840, Whig candidate William Henry Harrison was mocked by the Democrat’s man, Martin Van Buren, and his mouthpiece newspapers as a lazy, semi-literate drunkard who’d be content to sit in a log cabin and drink hard cider all day. Big mistake. The Whigs appropriated the imagery, turning Harrison—a well-educated Virginia blueblood—into a man of the people, comfortable shooting the breeze over a frosty mug of cider. Posters and badges extolled the “log cabin” candidate, and supporters carried pole-mounted log cabin replicas to rallies. Some of those drew as many as 100,000 people—no doubt thanks to ample free hard cider. Harrison won 80 percent of the electoral vote and 53 percent of the popular vote, but the celebration did not last. He died of pneumonia after the shortest presidential tenure in history: 31 days.
Before Elephants and Donkeys, It Was Raccoons and Roosters
A menagerie of animals have appeared in American politics—and not just on the campaign trail. The National Progressive Party had its moose, and the Libertarians have used both a porcupine and a penguin. The Whigs embraced the raccoon as their symbol even though it initially was meant as a Democratic insult. Live raccoons were all a part of the fun at a Whig gathering. Democrats began as roosters—proudly derived from a cutting remark about a crowing Democratic orator in 1840—but they were downgraded to jackasses by the cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1870. A few years later, the biting satirist depicted the Republicans—previously known as soaring eagles—as bloated elephants careening towards disaster. Those two caricatures somehow stuck. Donkeys and elephants—whether cast in iron or stuffed—have been popular ever since.
Silly Hats Are Convention Catnip
The official Democratic and Republican conventions want to project unity and control—as a result, they don’t allow unsanctioned campaign material onto the floor, lest it affect the brand. But delegates can wear whatever they want. Many don coordinated outfits or hats to identify their delegation—ten gallon toppers for Texas or cheese heads for Wisconsin. Hats tend to be the ultimate creative expression of identity. A New Mexico delegate festooned a bright red hat with signifiers of Native American and Latino culture and New Mexico pride—tall feathers, arrowheads, Katsina dolls, chili peppers, gourds and a toy space shuttle. A Dennis Kucinich delegate in 2004 literally put a paper bag over his head, and handwritten on the sides were the words: “No War. No Occupation. No NAFTA. No WTO.” The sillier and more outrageous the better, says Rubenstein—it all but guarantees that you’ll stand out on national TV—or go viral on Twitter.
Personal Attacks Are Nothing New
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson badly wanted to dislodge the Federalist party’s John Adams from the presidency. Adams had served two terms as Vice President to George Washington, and because of Electoral College rules, Adams won the presidency in 1796, while Jefferson was relegated to Vice President—even though they’d opposed each other in the election. Let’s just say there was a long history of bad blood that spilled over into the 1800 campaign. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans accused Adams of acting like a King, and dynasty-building, by marrying off one of his sons to a daughter of King George III. A low blow, given that Adams was a Founding Father. The Federalists fought back, hard, with a handbill that decreed: “Thomas Jefferson is a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow. . .” Jefferson had the last laugh, however. He won what ended up being a hotly contested election to become the third president. Taverns were soon hanging pro-Jefferson banners declaiming “John Adams is no more.”
Women Were Targeted Long Before They Could Vote
The first woman ran for president in 1872. That was bold, especially since women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920. But candidates and political parties saw the value of targeting women long before then. While the men went to their political club meetings, women made banners and stuffed envelopes. Candidates slapped their names on parasols (William McKinley), or hairpins (Andrew Jackson) to appeal to women—who were seen as the best way to influence the male voter of the household, says curator Graddy. Women were even more interesting to politicians after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted them equal voting rights, she adds, as evidenced by this Eisenhower pot holder.
If They Can Put Their Name On It, They Will
Tchotchkes and wearables have always been a staple of political campaigns. Rubenstein says there’s almost no limit to what’s been emblazoned with a candidate’s name. In 1964 the Barry Goldwater campaign featured cans of Gold Water, "the right drink for the conservative taste." Lyndon Johnson's campaign was bolstered by cans of Johnson Juice, "A Drink for Health Care." T-shirts and coffee mugs are ubiquitous in the modern era, while beer steins reined in previous generations. In 1880, voters could light James Garfield oil lamps. A man could bully his whiskers into submission with a 1904 Theodore Roosevelt straight razor. There’s no doubt what Herbert Hoover was trying to convey when he etched “Roosevelt for President” into the bottom of chamber pots during the 1932 campaign. After Dwight D. Eisenhower was drafted into the 1952 presidential race, Irving Berlin wrote his campaign song. “I like Ike” caught on like wildfire. The slogan was embroidered into mens’ socks and imprinted as a repeating pattern on womens’ dresses. Everyone liked Ike, it seemed.
Great Giveaways Don't Always Work
Pierre du Pont IV had an epic fail in the 1988 presidential race. The Delaware governor was the first declared Republican candidate in a field that came to include George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson. A huge blizzard just a few days before the New Hampshire primary threatened voter turnout. Du Pont dispatched legions of college students to clear sidewalks and driveways, leaving behind their shovels, festooned with “Pete du Pont for President” bumper stickers. The Granite State wasn’t impressed. With just 10 percent of the vote, Du Pont withdrew from the race two days after the primary.
The First National Appeal to Spanish-Speakers Was in the 20th Century
Non-English speakers have always been targeted in some way, usually locally, says Rubenstein. To be successful in New Mexico or Texas, for instance, candidates had to appeal to Hispanics. The first wider appeals were likely in the early 1900s; they have grown with the rise of the Spanish-speaking population in the post World War II years. Eisenhower was the first national Republican candidate to court the Spanish-speaking vote with the “Latinos con Eisenhower” outreach campaign. John F. Kennedy followed, as his wife Jackie recorded a campaign ad entirely in Spanish.
Torchlight Parades Were Once a Thing
Gone and mostly forgotten are the torchlight parades that were an integral part of campaigning in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Mardi Gras-like nighttime rallies—featuring brass bands, floats, banners, the party faithful marching in support of their candidate, and lots of flaming torches—were held in the days leading up to an election. The spectacles were both entertainment and enticement—a celebration that also aimed to draw apathetic voters to the candidate. Abraham Lincoln was known to favor the parades. A torchlight celebration for the candidate in 1860 brought out a reported 10,000 marchers and some 43 bands. Chicago held a procession for Kennedy in 1960 that was capped off by a nationally televised speech. Republican candidate Bob Dole tried to revive the magic with a torchlight parade in New Hampshire in 1996, but he was the last presidential contender to do so.