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Campaign Keepsakes

Museum’s Collection of Political Memorabilia Grows

In office space high above the construction that is reshaping the interior of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, a collection of political memorabilia dating back to the American Revolution is stored. Political ribbons, signs and toys bearing support for everyone from William Henry Harrison to Pat Buchanan sit in cabinets organized by year, proving that the hoopla that has surrounded recent presidential campaigns is nothing new.

“When you see somebody wearing a button on the street or a badge at a convention, they’re participating in a tradition that goes back to almost the early republic,” said William Bird, the museum’s curator.

As the general election season heats up, yard signs and bumper stickers are popping up all over the country in support of different candidates. This tradition of advertising support for a party first became prominent in the 1840s, though campaign knickknacks were a bit more creative back then.

“I often wish that the people that ran the conventions or maybe a couple of delegates would come visit us to see what they’re up against in terms of their own creativity,” Bird said.

The collection, some of which has been donated by individuals, features shopping bags, buttons and thimbles bearing candidates’ names. During each presidential election season, Bird and Harry Rubenstein, chair of the museum’s Division of Politics and Reform, travel to Iowa, New Hampshire and the Democratic and Republican conventions in search of memorabilia. The men will often approach people who have homemade goods and ask them to mail them to the Smithsonian at the election’s conclusion.

“We tend to be very interested in things that are personally made or are very expressive or have a unique quality,” Rubenstein said.

Some of the memorabilia will eventually be displayed in the Smithsonian, while portions of it will be loaned to other museums. Much of the memorabilia in the collection is reminiscent of a campaign style that doesn’t really exist anymore. In today’s society, campaigns spend millions of dollars on television commercials rather than knickknacks that bear the candidates’ likeness. It has become commonplace for parties to produce only a few yard signs and bumper stickers and perhaps one official button.

But in the 1960s, tokens such as cans of “Johnson Juice” and plastic Barry Goldwater glasses were available for the taking. Bird said he believes these tchotchkes are less prominent in today’s campaigns because their success cannot be measured in the same way that campaigns can quantify the benefits of television advertisements.

Television is “where the money has gone, and maybe it should, but they need to have this kind of physical thing, a memento of whatever it is that they feel so strongly about,” he said.

Another major change in campaign memorabilia is the fact that parties are now charging for signs and bumper stickers rather than distributing them for free. Candidates are essentially asking voters to pay them to advertise for their campaign.

[IMGCAP(1)]“When I was a kid you knew there was an election because of all those bumper stickers,” Bird said, noting that Johnson and Goldwater bumper stickers peppered the streets. “Now imagine that I pay you a dollar to put your advertisement on my bumper. That was unknown to these people.”

A major component of the collection is convention hats. The collection includes hats from dozens of campaigns including Theodore Roosevelt’s in the early 1900s, Dwight Eisenhower’s in the 1950s and even Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) in 2004.

“Here’s clearly continuity over time,” Rubenstein said. “Trying to maintain a political tradition that goes back to a day that existed when people wore straw hats.”

The Kerry hats are strikingly similar to the white plastic hats that John F. Kennedy’s campaign distributed at the 1960 Democratic convention. That was not an accident, Rubenstein said.

“What we were noticing during the last convention for Kerry was that they looked at all the footage from the ’60 convention and they said, ‘Aha! We want to create that same bandwagon effect of straw hats!’ So they produced white plastic hats too, so they could sort of have a Kennedy-esque, which is really sort of a Hoover-esque, kind of feeling,” Rubenstein said.

Not all of the hats in the collection were widely distributed. Inside the convention, the parties limit the signs that people are allowed to carry. In 2004, one convention-goer got creative and turned his sign into a hat, using a paper bag, a black marker and some curling ribbon. The person wore the red bag atop his head with the words “Kucinich says no war, no occupation, no NAFTA, no WTO” written along either side.

“Can you imagine somebody wearing this during the convention as a way of making their own kind of statement?” Rubenstein said with a laugh, holding the bag high above his head. “These are the kinds of things we look for. They’re really a sort of personal expression.”

Despite the fact that the museum is not scheduled to reopen until later this year, Rubenstein and Bird are still actively adding to the collection. As the 2008 campaign enters the general election season, the men are preparing to travel to Denver and the Twin Cities in search of memorabilia.

“There’s still this both need and desire to have this material culture of the campaign,” Rubenstein said. “People want campaigns to be fun; they aren’t just serious.”

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