Old Glory

Woven Patriotism

During the past two weeks, the United States has been in the throes of the presidential nominating process. At both the Republican and Democratic conventions, we’ve seen the banners, the posters and the flags waving for the respective candidates. While campaign advertisements and posters supporting candidates are nothing new, how did they become commonplace? The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum explores the evolution of American presidential campaigning in their new exhibit “Your Next President…! The Campaign Art of Mark and Rosalind Shenkman”, opening on August 27th.

The exhibition features rare presidential campaign textiles produced in the 19th century and collected by GW Board of Trustees member Mark Shenkman and his wife Rosalind. The exhibition also shows that the timely themes of immigration, protectionism, reform, prosperity and patriotism figured strongly in earlier campaigns that continue to resonate with voters today. According to Jane Freundel Levey, consulting curator at The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, "In the 19th century, as the nation was working out its political growing pains, communications were primitive and literacy rates were relatively low. Patriotic textiles were an inexpensive, easily distributed, and colorful medium for speaking to the public and rallying them to partisan causes. The presidential campaign flags and kerchiefs in the Collection of Mark and Rosalind Shenkman circulated throughout the states and captured the issues of their day, issues that still occupy the American electorate in 2016."  

Among the items on display include a rare flag that helped elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the first American campaign textiles. The flags used during the Lincoln/Hamlin/Johnson campaign appear with different designs (the current design became with the blue background and the stars symbolizing the states on the upper left hand became standard design in 1912). However, flag makers during the period of Lincoln took liberties with the design. On one flag, during the Lincoln/Johnson campaign in 1864, the blue background was shifted to the upper right hand corner and the 35 stars spelled out Free, which proclaimed the GOP’s opposition to slavery during the Civil War and, an extra star, anticipates the addition of Nevada as a new state. An earlier flag from Lincoln’s 1860 campaign feature a “Great Star” pattern formed by the individual stars.

Flags ranged in size from tiny (to mount on a popsicle stick) to gigantic (to adorn balconies). The show details the iconography, like a log cabin used on a flag during William Henry Harrison’s campaign, suggesting he was a man of the people when in actuality he was a Virgina aristocrat.

Theodore Roosevelt used imagery to connect with the American public. One item, a tribute pillow cover from 1906, was sepcifically designed for women to display in their home to influence male guests to vote for Roosevelt. Images included the president as a Rough Rider and as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Another Roosevelt memento, a campaign bandana, from his 1912 campaign when he ran as progessive. The symbols associated with the former president include a teddy bear and the “Big Stick.”

For more information, https://museum.gwu.edu/

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