With what can be considered one of the most exciting elections in United States presidential history occurring today, the Augusta Museum of History is taking a look back at past presidential campaigns with a new exhibit, Campaigning for the Presidency, open now through February 1, 2009.
Every four years, Presidential hopefuls compete for the public’s vote by inundating the country with their image, name, slogans, and message. On campaign trails, on television, over the Internet and via radio and other outlets, each candidate tries to sway voters that they are the best choice. Signs are posted, buttons are worn, and bumper stickers on cars proclaim our candidate of choice. Presidential campaign memorabilia is as old as the office it promotes, but did not become widespread until the first half of the nineteenth century. The Museum’s exhibit explores Presidential politicking from a campaign perspective – from an early McKinely button to modern campaign paraphernalia, observe the diverse ways in which politicians have fought for America’s votes!
The campaign button has proven to be one of the most consistently used items in Presidential campaigns. The highly recognized political button may have gotten its start as coat buttons like the ones made to commemorate George Washington’s inauguration in 1789. Brass buttons engraved with “G.W. – Long Live the President”, adorned the coats of Washington’s supporters. Over time, campaign buttons have changed in style to reflect the culture and new technology of the period.
After the emergence of the popular vote selecting the Electoral College in the 1820s, the period through the 1840s saw the rapid development of slogans, images, flags, buttons, and other items like snuff boxes, ceramic plates, and sheet music, as presidential candidates began to gear their campaigns to capturing the interest of individual voters. This trend of influencing voters and showing support with eye-catching items and gimmicks continues through the modern era, with paraphernalia such as stuffed animals, bobble-heads, and of course, more buttons!
But it was not until the middle of the 19th century when all white men gained the right vote (extended to non-land owners), that political parties began to use memorabilia to “market” their candidates to the masses. William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, is said to be the first candidate to actively campaign for president. Additionally, Harrison’s campaign created memorabilia designed for women, such as sewing boxes, in spite of the fact that females would not be given the right to vote for another eight decades!
Post World War II was the heyday of presidential memorabilia with the branding of “I like Ike” for President Dwight Eisenhower. Several items from “Ike’s” campaigns are on display at the Museum’s exhibit and make obvious the trend politics began to take halfway into the twentieth century – smart, witty, and repeated messages truly made presidential elections not just a political, but also social issue.
The social, yet political, trend continues with modern media today. Regardless if you wear a John McCain button or adorn your yard with Barack Obama signs, the purpose of campaigns remains the same – to be a part of it all.
Campaigning for the Presidency is open at the Augusta Museum of History now through February 1, 2009.
Artifacts on loan from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. and Mary Gail Nesbit.