When future historians try to fathom the fabric of American life in the 1970s, they might very well find it in a silk-screened T-shirt. Nixon's the One. Why Not the Best? No Nukes. Don't Buy Books From Crooks. Ecology Now. A Woman's Place is in the House . . . and the Senate. Save the Whales.
So what else is new? From the colossal cataloging job just completed by the Smithsonian and published in the forthcoming Threads of History from Smithsonian Press, you'll discover that much of American history, particularly political, has been woven into cloth -- captured in the flags, pennants, handkerchiefs, tea towels and needlepoint pillows of our past.
Textiles tell tales all the way back to the American Revolution, but it was in the 19th century, with an expanding textile industry and roller printing, that America went crazy for tabletop covers, quilts and the ubiquitous bandanna. It was the popular way to commemorate conventions, elections, all kinds of occasions.
By the time William Henry Harrison and Henry Clay battled in 1840, textiles had taken on significant campaign role. The now-illegal campaign flags embellished with portraits of the candidates and their slogan were all the rage. Harrison, portrayed as a back-woodsman who like his liquor, also worked log-cabins into the threads of quilts, yard goods and kerchiefs to successfully play down his genteel plantation upbringing. Clay, would strive three times for the presidency, would go to his grave in 1852 accompained by a banner declaring, "I would rather be Right than be President."
Some American statesmen were also put in stitches -- in full-length needlepoints called "Berlin" needlepoint for their origin and use of German-made yarn.
Kerchiefs, banners and bandannas would hold their own for decades, but some 19th century campaign items were to prove more ephermeral. Illuminated transparencies, apparently first made to honor Zachary Taylor's role in the Mexican war, were a sensation in 1860. Lincoln supporters in Hartford, Conn. -- a group called the "Wide-awakes" -- wrapped cheesecloth or other thin cotton around light wooden frames, first stamping the cloth with various messages. Glowing from the kerosene torches placed inside the frames and thrust upward on poles, the transparencies were a dramatic addition to nighttime parades.
As for the even-popular bandanna, it was the hit of the 1880s. When James. G. Blaine, the "continental liar from the state of Maine," was nominated in 1884, it was amidst waving flags and white handkerchiefs. In 1888, Grover Cleveland's runningmate, Allen G. Thurman, became known for the red silk kerchief he invariably carried; the people dubbed him "the Knight of the Red Bandanna."
By the 1900s the donkey and the elephant were established party symbols and the subject of oilcloth variations of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey." Teddy Roosevelt, a President whose toothsome grin matched Jimmy Carter's, was the inspiration for cotton variations called "Who can kill Teddy Bear?" and "Feed the Teddy Bear."
Though collecting buttons has been big business for years, these threads of our political history had been largely ignored. Even the Smithsonian didn't actively collect. In 1958, however, Washington attorney Ralph E. Becker donated his enormous personal collection of campaign paraphernalia, thus establishing the basis for what is now the largest amassment of political memorabilia in the country. The gift also gave Herbert Collins, curator of the division of political history, a mammoth job: cataloging all of it.
One result of this effeort is Collins' Threads of History, a huge (600 pages), illustrated (1,500 photographs) book soon to be available at Smithsonian museum shops, the Museum of History and Technology's McGraw-Hill bookstore, and on order through the publisher, Smithsonian Press.
The book's publication is itself something of an event among collectors, one which has them alternately groaning and rejoicing. According to David Frent, Vice-president of the northeast region of American Political Item Collectors, "There isn't much stuff to collect. It's a very thin market -- a dozen new collectors could double prices overnight."
Collins' concern is more for the survival of textiles. Explaining that restoration of a 19th-century banner might be as high as $1,500, even exceeding the cost of the banner itself, he questions whether many individuals have either the money or the facilities to properly complete a restoration.
Many of these valuable banners -- some worth several thousand dollars -- are on display in the Museum of History and Technology's "We, the People" exhibit. Don't be surprised, some time hence, if you find some of our '70s T-shirts alongside the one and only hand-painted banner of jefferson's 1800 election victory celebration. According to Collins, the Smithsonian has already collected paraphernalia from the '76 presidential campaigns, including Lillian Carter's T-shirt proclaming, "Jimmy Won!" But is that past history or future fashion? CAPTION: Picture 1, The hand-painted cotton sailcoth Roosevelt banner was made in 1912 by C. H. Buck & Company of Boston, left. Measuring 57 x 94 inches, the flag-draped portrait is similar to a 1905 pastel drawing and also a photograph. The clothing appears to have been changed by the artist; Picture 2, The James G. Blaine cotton banner, circa 1884, top, appears in the 1900 catalog of the American Flag Company, New York. It was mounted on a 36-inch stick; Picture 3, Made of cotton in 1888, the finely designed bandanna, above, capturing the likenesses of "President Grover Cleveland/Vice President Allen [sic] G. Thurman," was based on another issued in 1884. All three are in the Smithsonian's Ralph E. Becker Collection.; Picture 4, Jimmy Carter's grin and dancing peanuts, above left, were captured on silk in this 1976 bandanna that is now part of the Smithsonian political history collection.; Picture 5, The 1928 Smith campaign banner, left, is oilcloth, with stick mountings at top and bottom. It is in the Smithsonian's Michael DiSalle Collection. Photographs courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution; Picture 6, Also in silk is the Bostonian Society's flag bandanna from 1840 proclaiming "Harrison and Reform/The hero of Tippecanoe," above. Courtesy of the Bostonian Society