Ever since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, Americans have enjoyed the privilege of going to the polls every four years to cast their votes for president. Few traditions of the election season have been more emblematic of that process than the outpouring of mementoes that signify support for one or another candidate. In an age saturated with electronic and print media, we easily lose sight of the central role that banners, badges, mugs, plates, bandannas, and countless other sorts of ephemera have played as vehicles for signifying political loyalties and inspiring voter support. In conjunction with the Republican National Convention in summer 2004, the New-York Historical Society exhibited a large number of such artifacts. Campaigns on Cotton highlights the Historical Society's renowned collection of political campaign kerchiefs (an important electioneering tool in the days before broadcasting), with examples spanning two centuries of American political elections, as well as highlights from the collection of John and Jennifer Monsky.
George Washington, the “Father of Our Country,” is also the father of American political textiles. According to tradition, Martha Washington commissioned this kerchief made by renowned calico printer John Hewson of Philadelphia. An early example of image management, the kerchief features a heroic equestrian portrait of General Washington, copied directly from an English print of 1775. The use of the term “Foundator” may be one of the earliest references to Washington as a “founder” or “father” of his country. The four flags—the British Union Jack, the Rattlesnake flag, the Pine Tree flag, and a flag of thirteen stripes—predate the official adoption of the Stars and Stripes in July, 1777. This rare textile, one of only four extant, is often reproduced as a symbol of the American Revolution.
Martha Washington may have been the first First Lady to promote her husband’s image in textiles, but she was not the last. After George W. Bush became President in 2000, his wife Laura commissioned this celebratory kerchief from noted interior designer Carleton Varney. Featuring many symbols of their home state of Texas—the Lone Star flag; a Monarch butterfly, the official state insect; and bluebells, the official state flower—it also incorporates “his” and “hers” cowboy boots. The kerchiefs were presented by Mrs. Bush to close friends.
Celebrated as a national hero for his military exploits in the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson played a key role in establishing the cult of personality in American politics. In this French printed fabric, intended for curtains or upholstery, the uniformed General Jackson is surrounded by his six presidential predecessors and flanked by the American eagle and the celebrated frigate U.S.S. Constitution.
The American campaign kerchief officially arrived with the presidential bid of William Henry Harrison in 1840 after Democratic opponents labeled the 67-year-old Harrison an old “has been” content to retire to his log cabin and drink hard cider. Whigs seized upon the intended insult and turned log cabins and hard cider barrels into positive emblems of the campaign, championing Harrison as a man of the people. A flood of political kerchiefs featured the ubiquitous log cabin and barrels. Ironically, the man perennially portrayed as a simple frontiersman was actually an aristocratic Virginian who lived in a stately residence.
Like George Washington and Andrew Jackson before him, William Henry Harrison was promoted as a military hero. Known as “The Hero of Tippecanoe” for his victory over the Shawnees at Tippecanoe, Indiana in 1811, Harrison also distinguished himself during the War of 1812. He is depicted here in a heroic equestrian pose—echoing Washington’s famous image—surrounded by scenes illustrating his earlier military victories.
Motivated by the enormous success of personality politics and rustic populism in the Harrison campaign, the Whigs repeated their strategy by portraying candidate Henry Clay as a Kentucky frontiersman. Dubbed “Old Coon” to promote his folksy, down-home identity, Clay was promoted in campaign textiles featuring raccoons, sometimes shown committing acts of violence on Democratic roosters. Here, in the lower right corner, a feisty raccoon rolls a slogan ball with a stick. The kerchief also proclaims Clay’s plans for a protective tariff to remedy the nation’s economic ills.
Campaigns often appropriated the powerful patriotic symbol of the American flag in their efforts to sway voters. This flag mentions Clay’s running mate Theodore Frelinghuysen, the Chancellor of New York University, as well as Joseph Markle, Whig candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania. All were defeated.
The graphic cartoon in the upper left corner of this campaign flag features a raccoon—the Whig’s emblem for Clay—flaying a fox, representing Democratic frontrunner Martin “Mat” Van Buren. A rooster, symbol of the Democratic Party, hangs dead and plucked in the corner. Van Buren lost the nomination to “dark horse” candidate James K. Polk, who ultimately defeated Clay in the election.
A career army officer whose victories during the Mexican War electrified the nation, Zachary Taylor expressed no political views and had never voted in an election. His lack of interest or experience did not prevent a popular ground swell of support. Taylor’s presidential campaign was based entirely on his reputation as a war hero, and all of the kerchiefs produced by his campaign celebrate his military victories. In this example, “Old Rough and Ready” assumes the heroic equestrian pose appropriated by Washington and Harrison before him.
With the Union at stake, the election of 1860 was one of the most critical in American history. Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, a relative newcomer to the national political arena who emerged as a powerful contender after the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. This kerchief attempts to bolster Lincoln’s image by portraying him as “The Savior of His Country” alongside Washington, “The Father of His Country.”
Widely known in the Midwest, Lincoln was relatively new to the national political scene in 1860. At the time of the Republican Convention, supporters of Lincoln took the liberty of shortening his first name to “Abram.” Whether saving space or making a deliberate reference to the biblical Abram—the first man to follow God’s commands—their flags received the desired attention.
The conflict over slavery led to a split in the Democratic Party during the run-up to the 1860 election. Southern Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. This portrait flag is the only one known to survive from the Breckinridge election. Discovered in 2008 under the floorboards of a house in Philadelphia, it completes a unique quartet of matching portrait flags representing the critical four-way race of 1860.
After the party rift at the 1860 Democratic Convention, Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois, the forceful politician known for defeating Lincoln in the 1858 senate contest. During the subsequent campaign, Douglas broke an unwritten rule by campaigning in person, a practice previously considered undignified in a presidential candidate.
An early example of “recycling,” this 1860 campaign flag promoted John Bell and Edward Everett, nominees for president and vice president on the Constitutional Union ticket. In 1864, its lettering was altered to support the Republican candidacy of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. The slogan, “The Union and the Constitution,” proclaimed Bell and Everett’s central campaign tenet: to preserve the Union through compromise on the issue of slavery. It remained unaltered on the 1864 version.
The election of 1864 presented voters with one of the most significant decisions in the nation’s history. A vote for Abraham Lincoln supported continuation of the war effort, while a vote for General George B. McClellan backed a negotiated peace that would accept and protect slavery in the South. The clasped hands and waving flags in the corners of this kerchief symbolize Lincoln’s promise of a unified nation, and subtly invoke Lincoln’s anti-slavery goals. The same clasped hands appeared on a widely-circulated token issued by the American Anti-Slavery Society as early as 1840. The kerchief’s central image of Lincoln is after the well-known photographic portrait by Mathew Brady.
Commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, General George B. McClellan emerged as the Democratic challenger to incumbent Abraham Lincoln in the divisive election of 1864. McClellan is depicted here in full uniform, surrounded by his generals in a show of military might; however, the upward- and downward-pointing guns and sheathed sword symbolize the peace efforts of the Democratic Party.
In 1868, Republicans nominated celebrated Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant in the hopes he could unite the party and the war-ravaged nation. The slogan “In Union is Peace” promotes Grant as a unifying figure. As is typical in Grant campaign textiles, he is depicted in military attire with his rank clearly visible.
Democratic hopeful George H. Pendleton of Ohio urged that the national debt be paid in government-issued paper currency (“greenbacks”) rather than in coin, a policy supported by farmers and western settlers but opposed by the business interests of the North. At the Democratic Convention held in New York City’s Tammany Hall, Pendleton lost the nomination to former New York governor Horatio Seymour.
In 1872 Horace Greeley, abolitionist, reformer, and editor of the New-York Tribune, accomplished what no other presidential candidate has ever done: he received the nomination of both the Liberal Republicans (an anti-Grant faction of the Republican Party) and the Democrats. In a departure from typical portrait kerchiefs, Greeley’s campaign yardage incorporated a small repeated graphic of personal symbols: Greeley's signature white beaver hat and spectacles, and the axe and sickle—necessary tools of the frontier—symbolizing rural virtues and a favorite Greeley slogan, “Go West Young Man.”
Echoing the repeat design of the Horace Greeley yardage, this example supports the reelection of Ulysses S. Grant along with new running mate Henry Wilson. As revealed in this textile, the national yearning for peace that dominated the three elections of the 1860s continued as a central theme in the campaign of 1872.
Until the Bush/Gore election of 2000, the 1876 Hayes/Tilden race ranked as the most hotly contested race in American political history. Democrat Samuel Tilden triumphed in the popular vote, but disputed tallies from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, plus a controversy over the credentials of an Oregon elector, created a national crisis. Congress created a bi-partisan commission to adjudicate the matter. All the contested electoral ballots were granted to Hayes, enabling him to win the election by a single electoral vote. Hayes took office with many Americans believing he had been elected by fraud. A crucial result of Hayes’ election was his removal of Federal troops from the occupied South, ending twelve years of Reconstruction.
In the spirited contest of 1876, both parties attempted to adopt the mantle of reform and honest government, a compelling platform in a depression year. New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, known nationally for his role in destroying the corrupt Tweed Ring, ran with Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks. Though Tilden lost the national election, he left a significant legacy in New York City when he bequethed two million dollars to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” The Tilden Trust later combined with the private libraries of John Jacob Astor and James Lenox to form the New York Public Library.
Campaign kerchiefs, in the form of the red bandanna, came into vogue in the 1880s. These flamboyantly-colored cotton accessories were popular with white and blue collar workers alike, and wholesaled for as little as four cents each. Produced by block printing or lithography onto pre-hemmed squares or by roller printing onto continuous lengths of fabric, these versatile political devices could be worn or waved, attached to poles, walking sticks, and buggy whips, and used to decorate porches, platforms, and storefronts. Uncut bolts of bandanna cloth were used for banners, bunting, and even parade uniforms.
The 1880 campaign, a battle between two former Civil War generals, pitted Democrats Winfield Scott Hancock and William H. English against Republicans James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. These bandannas for the rival candidates were both designed by Hugh McCrossan and printed in New York City by Joseph Laing. McCrossan retained the same generic patriotic border for each print. Below the double portraits are more specific references to the candidate’s background: Hancock’s kerchief depicts him on horseback directing his troops, while Garfield—who spent a poverty-stricken boyhood as a canal boy along the Cuyahoga River—is paired with a vignette of a canal scene.
Grover Cleveland's running mate Allen Thurman, an inveterate snuff-dipper, was rarely seen in public without his trademark red bandanna. Supporters tied bandannas to Cleveland standards, and a critic is said to have grumbled, “You have nominated a pocket handkerchief!” The red bandanna soon developed into the dominant symbol of the Democratic campaign.
This unusual bandanna was printed with a generic design and subsequently embellished and distributed by the San Francisco Examiner, the first newspaper in the nation to endorse the Cleveland/Thurman ticket. The figure of Liberty holds portraits of Cleveland and Thurman as well as personifications of Success and the Pacific.
Benjamin Harrison, Senator from Ohio and grandson of William Henry Harrison, was himself a Civil War hero. His running mate was Levi P. Morton, a country boy turned city banker who exemplified the American rags to riches story. This red and white extravaganza of stars, emphasizing the Republicans’ crusade for a protective tariff, courts blue-collar support.
The symbolic American bald eagle with outstretched wings protecting a nest of eaglets delivers a forceful political message in favor of a protective tariff. The kerchief was likely manufactured prior to the 1892 Republican convention, when Levi P. Morton was dropped from the ticket in favor of Whitelaw Reid.
This vivid banner, depicting the stately William McKinley addressing a cheering crowd, reflects the sophisticated marketing behind his 1896 campaign. Campaign manager Mark Hanna applied his business skills to “selling” McKinley to voters by organizing party workers, disseminating propaganda, and raising enormous sums of money. Intimidated by the energy and charisma of populist and Democrat William Jennings Bryan, the Republicans rallied around McKinley and the defense of industrial capitalism. Proclaiming McKinley’s commitment to “honest money” (the gold standard) and protective tariffs, the banner also assures national prosperity under his leadership.
The election of 1908 marked the third and final failed presidential bid of Nebraskan Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The slogan here, “Bryan for mine! Sure winner this time,” counters Republican efforts to lampoon Bryan as a perpetual loser with gibes like “Vote for Taft this time—you can vote for Bryan any time” or “If not elected first time, run, run again.”
Despite his contention that he was "as fit as a bull moose," the Republican Party denied former president Theodore Roosevelt its nomination for President in 1912 and instead backed incumbent William Taft. Roosevelt ran under the banner of the Progressive Party, which advocated many social reforms including woman’s suffrage. One of the most energetic third-party candidacies in American history, Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign fully exploited the politics of personality.
The Rough Rider hat serves as the focal point of this kerchief, recalling Roosevelt’s heroism at the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. It also symbolizes Roosevelt’s throwing his hat “in the ring” as a third-party candidate. The use of repeated initials was adopted in later campaign kerchiefs, including those of Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) and Hubert Humphrey (HH).
With the Republicans hopelessly divided due to Roosevelt’s lively third-party candidacy, imaginative campaigning was unnecessary for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to secure the presidency. Avoiding major issues, this kerchief touts Wilson as “The Man of the Hour” and appeals to national patriotism with the slogan, “For our Flag and Country.”
Distributed by the Socialist Party of America in 1932, this kerchief endorses Norman Thomas and James Maurer for the White House, and the party’s candidates for New York governor, lieutenant governor, and mayor of New York City. 1932 marked the Socialist Party’s last strong showing in an election as workers, particularly those from the garment industry who formed the party’s base in the 1920s, fled either to the Democratic Party or the more radical Communist Party.
Democratic incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt’s “carry on” bandanna, promoting a third-term in office, reprints many of the President’s statements about his political agenda and achievements. Most recognizable is an excerpt from his famous 1932 acceptance speech, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”
Republican Wendell Willkie’s bandanna emphasizes his crusade “to preserve the American way of life” through safeguarding of democracy, supporting an adequate defense, and restoring full productivity. His statements also include a challenge to Roosevelt to debate the fundamental issues of the campaign.
The 1940 contest between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie inspired the greatest volume of campaign objects in American history. While buttons—an estimated 54 million—dominated campaign advertising, pennants and kerchiefs also promoted the candidates. The slogan “Win with Willkie” became a familiar refrain.
An advertisement for this item urged retailers to “Get on the ‘IKE’ Band-anna Wagon.” The ad further explains that men and boys can use it as a “neckerchief,” while women and girls can wear it as a scarf. The casual portrait of a grinning Eisenhower reflects the influence of television on the candidates’ public persona.
The upbeat graphic and vivid colors of Hubert Humphrey’s kerchief belie the bitterness and divisiveness of the 1968 presidential campaign, caused by the escalating U.S. engagement in the war in Vietnam. Democrat Hubert Humphrey pledged to continue Lyndon Johnson’s war policies in Vietnam, leaving the antiwar “doves” without a viable candidate in either party.
Liberal South Dakota Senator George McGovern opposed incumbent Richard Nixon with a remarkable grassroots campaign sparked by the antiwar movement, and called for unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam. This kerchief echoes his pledge of national renewal and promotion of faith in the American people, the land, and the tradition of fair play and compassion. Between difficulties with his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, and the Republicans’ successful campaign to paint him as unacceptably radical, McGovern suffered what was then the biggest landslide defeat in history.
Like the log cabin in 1840 and the red bandanna in 1888, the humble peanut evolved into the ubiquitous symbol of the 1976 campaign of Georgia peanut farmer and former state governor Jimmy Carter. This kerchief co-opts “Mr. Peanut,” the popular advertising mascot of the Planters Peanut Company, customized with an Uncle Sam top hat. The candidate’s signature toothy grin takes center stage.
The inscription on this anti-Reagan kerchief refers to the 1951 comedy film "Bedtime for Bonzo," in which Ronald Reagan starred as a professor who attempts to teach morals to a chimpanzee. In the 1984 Reagan vs. Mondale contest, Reagan inspired a larger array of hostile campaign items than any incumbent running for re-election since Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.
This “Bikers for Kerry” bandanna was created by a group of motorcycle enthusiasts in support of Democratic challenger John Kerry, who rode his own Harley-Davidson onto Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” to fuel his campaign publicity. With television and the Internet now the primary modes of political advertising, textiles and other campaign objects are manufactured in far fewer numbers. Today, special interest groups are one of the few producers of political kerchiefs.
Campaign T-shirts, baseball caps, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs make up the bulk of today's political memorabilia. Bandannas are rarely produced as an official campaign item. An exception was the line of “farm-ranch team” western products, including this bandanna, created by the George W. Bush campaign to exploit the President’s Texas roots. With the advent of of text-messaging, it is assumed that voters will have no trouble identifying the candidate by a single initial.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was marked by bold graphics and slogans epitomized in Shepard Fairey's iconic “Hope” poster. This scarf appropriates the imagery of stencil graffiti, a style of street art, to depict Obama’s portrait. The lack of patriotic colors, identifying text, or campaign slogan distinguishes it from typical campaign textiles.
Made in Rwanda from hand-printed cotton yardage, this bandanna tells a story not just of American political campaigns but of interconnected global markets. The three-tone design was originally produced for Fair Wind Trading Inc., founded in 2006 by American artist and activist Willa Shalit to assist women in Rwanda in the aftermath of civil war and genocide. Two colorways of the fabric were created in partnership with UTEXRWA, a textile producer in Kigali. Bags made of the cloth were sold in the both United States and East Africa, declaring support for the man who would become this country’s first African American president.
Today political bandannas maybe be as likely to appear on four-legged companions as on voters themselves. This dog bandanna, sold by the 2012 Obama campaign, proclaims the support of LGBT communities for the reelection of President Obama. A hallmark of Obama’s social policy has been advancing the rights and equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender peoples.
"Campaigns on Cotton," is based on an exhibition held at the New-York Historical Society from June 22 to November 3, 2004. The original installation was curated by Margaret K. Hofer with contributions from John Monsky. Nicola Astles and Maeve M. Hogan created the online version with the assistance of Laura Mogulescu, Eleanor Gillers, and Glenn Castellano.
The New-York Historical Society is grateful to John Monsky, Jennifer Weis Monsky, and Yale University Art Gallery for graciously allowing us to use their images for this online exhibition.