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Campaigning for President

Museum of the City of New York, New York, N.Y. Through Nov. 4, 2008

If Elected: The Game of American Politics

New York Historical Society, New York, N.Y. Through Jan. 20, 2009

Groucho Marx quipped that he’d never belong to any club that would have him as a member. But though Groucho shared one thing with his era’s politicos—a love for big, stinky cigars—his attitude was downright un-American when it comes to elections. Witness the number of citizens throughout the history of the republic who have flocked to join the personality-driven clubs dominating presidential campaigns. In the 1800s, for instance, you could buy a hat with your favorite pol’s face on the inside lining so that you’d subtly reveal your political loyalties every time you tipped your hat in greeting.

“Politics and elections helped people define their personal identities,” says Tom Mellins, who curated “Campaigning for President” for the Museum of the City of New York. Culled from the late Jordan Wright’s 1.25 million-piece collection (see right), the exhibit’s 800 artifacts offer a view through time of presidential electioneering, which was the most extravagant form of popular entertainment around before mass media.

In the main exhibit space, steps lead to a podium from Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln delivered the oration (“Might makes right”) that made him a national figure. As Sam Waterston’s voice delivers his words, TV screens around a small “arena” flash images of past candidates addressing conventions—a you-are-there opener.

The exhibit wraps around this center in chronological order. Along the outer walls, a wide band registers election returns for each quadrennial contest while the artifacts morph, reflecting the time’s technology and culture. The first rally lantern from John Adams’ 1796 campaign is made of tin, hand-painted, as durable as it is striking. Just below are paper lanterns, cheaper, easier to make, far less durable, but often no less striking. Likewise, hand-painted campaign buttons eventually yielded to the pin-on celluloid disks with mass-produced images that soon became ubiquitous.

From the 1800s come flags aplenty emblazoned with pols’ names, as well as ample evidence that negative campaigning is as old as America. A purple-prose broadside from Henry Clay’s Whigs vilifies “Bloody General Jackson.” A chamber pot is charmingly decorated with Benjamin Harrison’s portrait. A William McKinley doll is transformed with a flick of the wrist: Turn the frock-coated prez upside-down, and the coat drops to reveal a mammy doll, a jab about his alleged black daughter. A poster shows FDR embracing a hooded Klansman labeled TRUMAN. Plus ça change

The exhibit naturally looks at serious issues and how campaign organizing evolved, from local guilds to pivotal figures from Martin Van Buren through Mark Hanna, who developed national corporate structures for electioneering. But there’s plenty on the lighter side: a painted wooden train with engineer U.S. Grant; a James G. Blaine straight razor; a 1928 Life magazine mock endorsement of Will Rogers, who pledged, “If elected I’ll resign”; stockings with ADLAI scripted across the upper-thigh hems; white-and-blue-striped popcorn boxes stamped IKE and ADLAI used in theaters to conduct “polls.”

Across Central Park, the New York Historical Society has a small, choice show called “If Elected: The Game of American Politics,” with several dozen pieces from its collection. There are oversized cigars, cigarette packs and matchbooks sporting candidates’ images, buttons galore, but also a gorgeous tin-and-glass Abe Lincoln lantern, William Henry Harrison kerchief and William McKinley cotton banner, amid beautiful Victorian knickknacks, wallpaper and oil lamps. The pièce de résistance: a Pewterers’ Guild banner, from the sort of rally that routinely drew tens, even hundreds of thousands into the streets.

“The Internet is changing all this,” says “If Elected” curator Stephen Edidin. “Now you print out your own bumper sticker.” Mellins adds, “The technology is always changing, so the question is how everything from fundraising to buttons will adapt or be replaced.”


Originally published in the December 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here