"I TELL YOU FOLKS," Will Rogers once wrote, "all politics is applesauce."
If so, applesauce is about the only campaign dish that someone, somewhere doesn't collect. Just about everything else is highly sought after by collectors of poltical memorabilia. And there's plenty of it.
Out of almost every American presidential campaign has come all manner of buttons and badges, banners and flags, ceramics and glassware, posters and pamphlets, jugs, mugs, canes, umbrellas and convention hats.
To some folks, these items may be little more than the debris of history, to be discarded, forgotten, or ignored. But to those with both a sense of history -- and an unquenchable desire to own bits and pieces of our past -- they are much more. Especially for collectors, these remnants form the mosiac that tells us something of the style, tone, themes and symbols of long-lost campaigns and the candidates who fought in them.
The raucous politics of early America lives again in the faded flag banners of 1840 that proclaimed William Henry Harrison "The Hero of Tippecanoe" and made the log cabin his political symbol -- though he was neither born nor lived in one.
The miniature "gold" and "silver" lapel bugs that spring open to reveal photographs of William McKinley or William Jennings Bryan and their running mates revive the historic 1896 debate between McKinley, the champion of gold and "sound money," and Bryan with his fervor for "free silver."
A colorful 1904 serving tray, depicting a saber-waving Teddy Roosevelt in Rough Rider uniform astride a galloping horse, speaks again of the vigorous life that dominated the presidential world of our 26th chief executive.
These and countless other mementos of American presidential campaigns -- the experts like to call them artifacts -- are gathered between the covers of two new books of political memorabilia. One, Collecting Political Americana by Hartford University professor Edmund Sullivan provides an overview of the colorful, sometimes wacky possibilities of political collecting and contains a number of helpful hints for beginning collectors. The second, Threads of History by Herbert Collins of the Smithsonian, takes us on a two-century tour through the world of campaign textiles.
Apparently some 12 years in the making, Threads of History is a coffee-table-sized book that illustrates 1,502 banners, flags, bandannas, kerchiefs, handkerchiefs, coverlets, quilts, scarfs, rugs, pennants and other forms of illustrated campaign textiles.
Individually, the older items are the survivors of that era in American politics when a bandanna delivered the political message that a candidate now delivers for himself in one's living room. Collectively, they form their own historic thread. Illustration 1, a linen kerchief showing George Washington on horseback, reaches through history to illustration 1,502, a cotton banner of the American Agriculture Movement, whose members demonstrated last year in front of the White House where Washington laid the cornerstone. l
Leafing through Threads of History, is much like browsing through one of the Smithsonian museums -- so rich and extensive is the photographic collection. That is not surprising. Collins, a curator in the division of political history at the Smithsonian, drew on items from 56 private collections, 39 public collections and 93 Smithsonian Institution collections.
Regrettably, only about two dozen of the illustrations are in color -- probably because of the high cost of color printing -- but the black-and-white illustrations are clear and the brief text material interesting.
If Threads of History is a comprehensive look at campaign textiles, Collecting Political Americana takes a look at not only textiles but many other political items, including medalets, ceramics, advertising devices, ribbons, banners, postcards, license plates and other novelties.
Sullivan, who is the curator of the J. Doyle DeWitt Collection at Hartford, demonstrates a broad expertise. It shines through -- if somewhat dryly -- in many chapters, including his fascinating account of the torchlight parade, for which he gives credit to a "pioneering study" by Collins.
Among the early torchlight marchers were the citizens of Hartford, Connecticut, who turned out during the campaign of 1860 to greet Abraham Lincoln and who gave birth to the colorful Hartford "Wide Awakes."
By 1888, Sullivan reports, the nation had hundreds of "Wide Awake" clubs -- uniformed, quasi-military marching units whose elaborate torchlight parades sometimes last two or three hours. Fortunately for collectors, many of the torchlights used in those parades are still in existence.
Sullivan stresses that, for both novices and experienced collectors, knowledge is the key to success. By knowledge, he means those small, even minor details about candidates and campaigns. He cites, for example, a small, cast iron statue of a dog, inscribed "Laddie Boy." It is from the 1920 campaign. Laddie Boy was the name of Warren G. Harding's pet dog, but a collector who does not know this bit of Harding trivia might easily miss an interesting campaign item.
"The ability to recognize obscure campaign slogans or references to long-forgotten political events and personalities is essential," Sullivan notes.
Going beyond definitions and illustrations, Sullivan offers new collectors some worthwhile advice on where to find campaign material, how to organize it, care for it and, importantly, how to guard against the many "souvenir" or phony political items that plague the hobby.
Finally, aside from the historic, literary or even useful aspects of both books, they will strike jealousy in the hearts of serious collectors. Both books, indeed, take one beyond jealousy to downright envy.
What collector wouldn't give his Alf Landon collection for one of those lovely McKinley-Roosevelt banners from the 1900 campaign? Or, better yet, for that red velvet Grover Cleveland banner from an 1884 parade? Or, for that great Al Smith portrait on cotton entitled, "America's Biggest Man for America's Biggest Job?"
Let them call it history, if they wish. For me, it's campaign fever, and I don't wish to be cured.