A Brief History of Presidential Campaign Merch
We care a lot about our presidential nominees. Look no further than the glut of campaign merchandise at our disposal each election cycle, and, in particular, all the ways we dress ourselves for our nominee’s success: the buttons, the T-shirts, the hats, the tote bags, the etc. It helps if your candidate has a catchy slogan to print on those buttons and tees and totes, but really, all a hopeful needs is a name and/or a face. (Adlai Stevenson had both a name and a face, but he had terrible merch. My grandpa might’ve avoided the medicine cabinet on November 4th, 1952 if Stevenson’s campaign had managed to concoct a zingier slogan than "I Used to Like Ike, Now I’m for Stevenson," which takes the prize for second-most-meh presidential one-liner after Barry Goldwater’s 1964 pins that read "In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right!")
Where did this whole idea of election merch come from? How far back does the history of wearing your candidate’s name on your sleeve go?
It all started with the button — or, at the very least, button-like objects — and it all started with America’s first POTUS.
"This idea of little, sort of metal discs begins with George Washington’s inauguration," says Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of political history at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. These were commemorative brass buttons inscribed "Long Live the President" surrounding the initials "GW" and were sold as souvenirs of Washington’s inauguration. Some were affixed with a pin and could be worn, and others were more pocket pieces. Says Rubenstein, whose museum holds a trove of campaign materials going back as far as Washington and as recent as "I’m With Her" and "Make America Great Again," "These are sort of the first, in many respects, American political buttons. Not campaign obviously, but tokens demonstrating one’s political ties and allegiances."
It wasn’t until the 1840s that merch became a cornerstone of campaign strategy. That was the year William Henry Harrison ran the first active campaign for the presidency, an operation that became known as the "Log Cabin Campaign of 1840" under the singsongy slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Utilizing not one but two defining ideas — that Harrison was born in a log cabin, and that Harrison emerged a war hero at the Battle of Tippecanoe — the campaign yielded a host of wearable items incorporating both themes.
Pinnable merch was the most popular merch in the 19th century. Buttons were indeed a thing, but they were expensive to produce at that time. Silk ribbons were far cheaper, easily printed en masse and distributed by political newspapers to support their particular candidates. "People were wearing ribbons the way you think of wearing buttons today," says Rubenstein. "Some of them were attached to a button. They become a little fancier that way."
"His campaign was very effective in merchandising him as a man of the people even though he was a wealthy landowner," says Tom Slater, director of Americana auctions at Heritage Auctions. To wit, Harrison’s campaign was the first to transform a perceived flaw into a likable characteristic. A newspaper supporting his opponent, Democrat Martin Van Buren, criticized Harrison for being lazy and simple, alleging that the Whig candidate would rather drink hard cider and "sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin". Harrison’s team saw an opportunity, and log cabin fever quickly ignited among Whig-aligned voters. Harrison supporters built log cabins across the country where folks could buy all sorts of log cabin-oriented memorabilia — sulfide buttons, ornate brooches, china, printed handkerchiefs, replica log cabins — in effect becoming the first campaign HQs replete with gift shops.
"It was so successful that it really changed the nature of campaigning," says Rubenstein. "They’d have torch light parades down the street, and they’d march around with little models of log cabins. This just swept the country." Picture that a minute: People carried log cabin replicas during parades. It was true commitment to a gimmick, and it worked. Harrison won. (And then died 30 days later, but that had nothing to do with the merch.) Each successive set of candidates has adopted some kind of qualifier to really set the people’s hearts apace since.
"There’s sort of an obligation," says Rubenstein. "Once you begin that idea of really successful imagery that produces a victory, everybody sort of needs to follow suit." And in the absence of accurate imagery, adds Rubenstein, "make one up, which is really what they sort of did with Lincoln." America’s 16th president was known as The Railsplitter during his first presidential campaign. "Lincoln used to joke that he wasn’t really The Railsplitter. It wasn’t something he did that much of. But he knew that it was a really effective device of drawing the votes of the common man in that particular election." It was important that Lincoln conveyed integrity as part of his platform, too. Together with his running mate Hannibal Hamlin, they were known in their campaign merch as "Republican Standard Bearers."
The campaign button we’re familiar with nowadays, with the pin on the back that you’ll inadvertently stick into your flesh at more than a few points before the polls close, was patented and mass produced in 1896, and the election campaigns of Williams McKinley and Jennings Bryan that year introduced a slew of buttons that modern collectors continue to covet. Heritage Auctions sold a 1 ½-inch button printed with a photo of Jennings Bryan surrounded by 16 supporters wearing campaign ribbons in 2006 for $1,553.50. Yes, it’s a button depicting people wearing ribbons. You could not get more meta with that merch if you tried.
Voters could tip their hats, literally, come the elections in the mid-1800s. Campaign hats didn’t necessarily set any new trends, but rather reflected styles of the time. The only embellishments needed to indicate if you were for James K. Polk or Henry Clay were silk ribbons printed with the candidate of choice’s name tied around the hatband.
What about those boater hats that many delegates wear at national conventions today, the straw-resembling, "flat-brimmed, flat-topped and wrapped with a wide grosgrain ribbon" ones that make the RNC and DNC look like Barbershop Quartet Con? For nearly as long as we’ve had conventions, we’ve had boater convention hats. According to Hats and Headwear Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia by Beverly Chico, the style first arrived in the states in the late 1800s as the go-to summer hat. With presidential conventions set in the warmer months, wearing a boater was a natural fit, and remained so even when the fashion fell out of day-to-day favor. In the 1960s, boater hats were particularly smart complements to the pinstriped paper vests worn for John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Come the 1980s, Styrofoam and plastic boaters replaced the classic straw.
Other hat styles functioned in the same way as candidates’s catchy slogans, imbuing the candidate with a desirable, marketable quality. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Stetson-style plastic cowboy hat affixed with a silver LBJ badge is a good example, signaling to the country "This man is from Texas." Adlai Stevenson’s plastic, toy-ish, hard hat-type hat — crowned with a nodding donkey figurine and featuring a stapled paper banner reading "Win With Stevenson" and sold by Heritage Auctions for all of $71.70 — is a so-so example. The only reason it’s not a good-grief-what-is-this-monstrosity example is that it wasn’t sold to some poor schmo, but clearly homemade by a Stevenson supporter, one of the 44 percent of the population that voted for him (including my grandpa).
Why support your candidate atop your head when you can cover yourself in adoration from head to toe? Today, political conventioneers blanket themselves in pins, oversized vest it out, and wrap themselves in flags — all the typical patriotic to-do. Passionate supporters back in the 1840s onward weren’t so different, often donning parade costumes specifically meant for, you guessed it, marching in parades.
The most unusual parade costume that Heritage Auctions’ Slater has seen is "without a doubt, that Henry Clay costume." Consisting of a red-and-white pinstriped, white-on-blue star-embellished jacket and pants, it looks like the makings of an Uncle Sam ensemble, except for the portrait of Clay on the jacket’s back and Clay’s name sewn in on the sleeves and thighs. As Heritage Auctions’ site puts it, "This has got to be one of the greatest presidential campaign items ever! Apparently, some inspired seamstress of the Whig persuasion took two or more portrait flags of Clay and fashioned this outfit." It sold in 2015 for $13,750.
Other parade costumes derived less out of zeal for flash and more out of practicality. 1860 saw the formation of a number of organized marching groups for each of that election’s four candidates. The marching group in support of Lincoln, the Wide Awakes, became particularly known for holding torch light parades and wearing matching uniforms comprised of oil cloth capes meant for resisting rain. "You put on your oil cloth cape, you’ve got your torch, you go on a torch light parade, and somehow that’s going to inspire everybody to go out and vote for your candidate," explains Rubenstein. "Also, it’s just fun."
The uniforms were utilitarian and ideal for keeping the groups organized, and they undoubtedly had an impact on the passing crowd. Says Slater, "It was very effective, as you can imagine. A couple hundred guys all dressed the same, marching down with these torches."
"Now these boater hats and Henry Clay pajamas are all well and good," you might be saying. "But where were the women’s fashions?" The long and short of it is that women’s election merch didn’t exist — at least not until the women’s suffrage movement. Yellow became the symbolic color for the women’s suffrage movement as early as 1867, when Kansas suffragists used their state flower, the sunflower, in promotional materials; soon, "show your colors" became shorthand for showing support for suffrage by wearing yellow. Yellow sashes made of either felt or grosgrain ribbon emblazoned with the words "Votes for Women," as well as straight-stick pins bearing the same straightforward message, were worn in the early 1900s up until the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920. After voting in the 1920 election, women could pick up yellow buttons reading "I Cast My First Vote."
Once women won the right to vote, merch makers saw an opportunity for political advertising in women’s fashion. Perhaps the most iconic campaign-meets-couture look is that of the Nixon paper dress. Paper dresses were introduced to the market in 1966 by Scott Paper Towel Company and sold for $1.25 each. They were cheap, they were disposable, and they were primed to function as walking billboards. As Fashion Fads in American History: Fitting Clothes into Context by Jennifer Grayer Moore describes it, "The dress, marketed as the ‘Paper Caper,’ was promised to be a ‘conversation piece,’ suggesting that perhaps the people at Scott knew this was a faddish concept. Remarkably, they sold half a million dresses." The fad lasted until 1968, just in time for Nixon’s first successful campaign run for the presidency and its widely-worn supporter dress that was the clothing equivalent of yelling into a megaphone. This year, Lena Dunham’s stylist Shirley Kurata replicated the bold typeface graphic for one of Dunham’s stumping tour outfits — Hillary-ified, of course.
Nelson Rockefeller latched onto the trend even before it was a bonafide trend, distributing paper dresses bedecked with a repeating pattern of his head for a bid in 1964 that never ended up panning out in the Republican nomination. In 1968, he, along with Nixon, fellow Republican primary contender Ronald Reagan, and Hubert Humphrey on the Democratic side, made even bolder statements by producing dresses that featured only their oversized heads in black and white, which filled the sheaths from hem to hem. And truly, nothing says "fashion" like the enlarged head of a white man.
Arguably the most fashionable presidential campaign merch, however, accompanied perhaps the most famous three-word American sentiment after God Bless America: "I Like Ike." Nothing compares to the array of Eisenhower-adorned merch. I Like Ike poodle skirts. I Like Ike gloves. I Like Ike decal sunglasses. I Like Ike embroidered pantyhose. Women known as "Ike Girls" wore red-and-white allover "Ike" printed dresses and spun parasols outside of Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was held that year, and continued to wear those dresses at rallies, too. Thanks to fashion, Eisenhower’s was the first campaign to lend galvanizing power to women in a cohesive way.
Campaign merch combines two very American ideas: passion for politics and shopping for stuff. But there’s something deeper that investing in campaign merch — designing it, creating it, selling it, buying it, flaunting it — touches on, too. It makes everyday people feel like they’re a part of the race.
"Candidates are interested in winning elections and moving numbers," says Rubenstein. "And it’s unclear whether these kinds of things move numbers. But it does, I think, strengthen American democracy to have these things, and to have a citizenry that participates in the process in ways that go beyond voting. They really are an important tool of civic engagement."
Even that Adlai Stevenson plastic hat.