- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

NEW YORK | Have you ever thought about bringing an 8-foot-tall burning torch to a political rally? What about drinking John McCain-brand juice?

Those gestures may sound strange today, but in the 1800s, torches became among the first examples of American campaign memorabilia, and in the 1960s, presidential nominees had their names emblazoned on juice cans. Barry Goldwater’s “gold water” was “The right drink for the conservative taste.”

It wasn’t all witch-hunting and thirst-quenching; there was plenty of potty humor, too. In fact, early American campaign memorabilia makes today’s wry slogans on T-shirts look tame.

Some trinkets were signs of the times never to be seen again, such as the McKinley parasol, the Eisenhower cigarette pack and the Kennedy paper dress.

Others have evolved. The political button may have gotten its start as coat buttons like those made to commemorate Washington’s inauguration in 1789, said Sara Henry, deputy director and chief curator of the Museum of the City of New York.

“This brass button says, ‘Long live the president,’ and this one has his initials in the middle,” she said, pointing to the encased artifacts. The buttons are part of the exhibit “Campaigning for President: New York and the American Election,” which is running at the museum through Election Day.

Political parties did not use memorabilia to “sell” candidates to the masses until the middle of the 19th century, when all white men got the vote - as opposed to just landowners, Miss Henry said.

Tall torches adorned with photos of candidates were passed out during rallies and parades to light the dark streets. Paper lanterns decorated with a candidate’s picture, a rare item because most burned, also were used for campaigning.

William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, is said to have been the first candidate to actively campaign for president, said Larry Bird, curator of the Division of Politics and Reform at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In addition to torch poles topped with his signature log cabin, the campaign made domestic items such as women’s brushes and sewing boxes.

There was plenty of negative campaigning, too. One of the earliest examples at the New York exhibit is the Grover Cleveland and Allen Thurman chamber pot from 1888. Then there are the William McKinley pigs. The little pigs have a hole at the rear that you can look through to see a picture of McKinley.

“You do see a lot of potty humor in American politics,” Miss Henry said. “We haven’t included a lot of it in the exhibit because much of it is just so juvenile.”

Then there’s the McKinley doll. When held upright, the porcelain-and-cloth doll is McKinley. When turned upside down, it’s a black baby, referring to the accusation he fathered an illegitimate black child.

William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee in 1896, 1900 and 1908 and known for his long speeches, frequently was represented by a coffin along with the phrase “Talked to death.”

In 1944, a poster impugned vice presidential candidate Harry S. Truman on the basis of his Southern background by drawing him in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. More functional items are Ronald Reagan’s slippers, a comb to “Comb Nixon out of your hair” and John Kerry flip-flops.

The post-World War II era was the heyday of memorabilia, Mr. Bird said. “I like Ike” nylon stockings were created at a time when women started to expose more of their legs.

As technology advanced, so did the political button, which started off as a lithograph printed directly on metal, says Mort Berkowitz, who has thousands of buttons going back to the 1800s and is also known as “the Button Man.”

In the ‘60s came the quirky juices like Goldwater’s and the Lyndon Johnson juice can - “A drink for health care.”

“It was political, but also social,” Mr. Bird said. “That’s what’s changed.”

When campaigning on television became standard, the focus began to shift. Buttons got bigger, presumably to play to the TV cameras. Candidates spent more money on commercials than tchotchkes.

Mr. Bird recalls being unable to get a button at the New Hampshire campaign office for Democratic candidate Paul Simon, then an Illinois senator, in 1988, although he could watch a video of the candidate’s biography. “If I’m a candidate, I’d rather have a million people wearing my button than I would have someone just watch my television commercial,” he said.

It’s impossible to know which products from today’s campaigns will be collectors’ items, but Mr. Bird said despite all the changes, the underlying purpose always remains the same: to feel a part of it all.

“There’s a need for people who want to participate to have material with which to express themselves,” he said.

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