10 Bizarre Facts from US Election History

From astrology charts to bubblegum cigars

Here are 10 facts that reveal the weirder side of US campaigning and elections history…

1. Feuding fathers

We think the 2016 presidential election was one of the most divisive and dramatic elections in US history, but how much do you know about the election of 1800? If you think rhetoric is heating up today, imagine a candidate saying the following about his political opponents: "he is a contemptible idiot", "a bastard brat of a Scotch peddler", and he is a "hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman". Fighting words indeed.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (Collection: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)

2. Head to head

Today, we mostly compare candidates on their policies, or on their approach to key issues, but what about on their phrenology? In 1884, comparisons of presidential candidates included an analysis of their (literal) skulls, as we can see in this political broadside.

Political Broadside, "This Settles the Presidency!...The Candidates Phrenology Considered", 1884 (Collection: The Henry Ford)

3. From lanterns, to pins, to… clothes for dogs?

Flyers, bumper stickers, posters: these are all fairly standard ways of promoting your preferred candidate. But history has thrown out some downright bizarre examples of campaigning paraphernalia. For example, did you know that campaign buttons used to be literal buttons? Or that political hood ornaments were popular way back in the 1920s?

Obama Dog Sweater, 2012 (Collection: The Henry Ford)

Nixon even made bubblegum cigars as part of his campaign. And you definitely wouldn’t be allowed to make campaign items like this cigarette packet anymore.

Richard Nixon Campaign Bubblegum Cigar, 1968 (Collection: The Henry Ford)

4. The stars of the Presidential campaign

During the election of 1860, Broughton's Monthly published four issues featuring engraved portraits of 1860 presidential candidates with astrological charts. It included commentary on their potential success based on a readings of their horoscopes.

Broughton's Monthly Planet Reader and Astrological Journal, 1860 (Collection: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

5. Convict no. 9653 for president

Have you heard the story of the candidate who ran for president from prison? Eugene V. Debs was a five-time Socialist Party candidate for president in the early 1900s. During the First World War, Debs publicly railed against the war and the military draft. He was jailed in 1918 for his continued agitation against the government. Two years later, Debs made his fifth and final run -- this time from a federal prison. He lost, but still received over 900,000 votes.

Eugene V. Debs Campaign Button, 1920 (Collection: The Henry Ford)

6. Lighting up the campaign trail

You’ve heard of buttons, badges and flags, but what about lanterns? This is a particularly peculiar election history that’s sadly gone out of fashion. Late-nineteenth-century political parties rallied their supporters by holding torchlight parades. In the evening, marchers lit up the streets carrying an assortment of paper lanterns which glowed with the name of the party's candidate.

These examples illuminate this forgotten history. Plus, the fact that these delicate artifacts have survived for more than 100 years is truly remarkable.

Presidential Campaign Lantern, 1864-1868 (Collection: The Henry Ford)

7. The unfair sex

Women had limited voting rights in the 19th and early-20th century and the authorities were concerned about women having their say on issues that they weren’t legally entitled to vote for. So the government created two separate ballot boxes for men and women. That way, if any "illegal" ballots were to show up in the women's tin, they could easily be thrown out.

Tin Drum Ballot Box for Women, George B. Barnard,  (Collection: Women's Suffrage Memorabilia)

8. Video killed the radio star

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon agreed to four televised debates. While Kennedy appeared tanned and relaxed, Nixon looked pale and sweaty. To many of those listening to the debate on the radio, Nixon came out ahead. To television audiences, however, Kennedy was the clear winner. Clearly, TV makes all the difference.

Image Matters, Oct 10, 1960 (Collection: Newseum)

9. Sculpting politics

A variety of anti-suffrage ceramic pieces appeared during the suffrage era, largely as a response to the suffragettes’ knack for powerful memorabilia. Many of these were manufactured by the German firm of Schafer & Vater, who supplied both America and England with these caricature depictions of suffragettes. Most popular in the US were figures of cats inscribed with the words “Votes for Women” or “I Want My Vote”, the implication being that, if women were to receive the vote, then so too should all sorts of different animals. Mee-ow!

Anti-Suffrage Ceramics, 1908 - 1917, Emilia D. van Beugen, photographer (Collection: Women's Suffrage Memorabilia)

10. Speaking to a nation

President Franklin D. Roosevelt used this radio microphone to make his famous “fireside chats” in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1940 election, incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic candidate, broke with tradition and controversially ran for a third term. Roosevelt reached out directly to voters through radio broadcasts, bypassing hostile newspapers that refused to cover his campaign.

Clearly this approach worked as Roosevelt won - thus becoming the first United States president in history to be elected for a full third term.

FDR's Microphone, 1930 - 1945 (Collection: Newseum)

Explore the American Democracy project here.

Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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