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Friday, November 09, 2012

Campaign Ads: 19th-Century Style

This week's election prompted much conversation here at the Rosenbach, as I'm sure was the case at lunchrooms and water coolers around America. A topic that came up around our lunch table was relief at the end of the the advertising onslaught, which prompted some discussion of the historical use of campaign slogans and symbols.


One that came immediately to our minds was the 1840 bid of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (known as the “Log Cabin Campaign”). This was the campaign that coined the famous song and slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” In case you had any doubts about the historic roots of mudslinging, here are the song’s first verse and chorus (and a youtube video of the song):


What has caused this great commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It is the ball a-rolling on

For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
And with them we'll beat little Van, Van, Van,
Van is a used up man.
And with them we'll beat little Van.





In our collection, we have a really neat William Henry Harrison campaign ribbon (although it doesn't include the famous phrase). The silk ribbon  features a portrait of  "Gen. Wm. H. Harrison" atop portraits of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Underneath is a slightly tweaked version of Henry Lee's famous description of  Washington: "First in War--First in Peace--First in the Hearts of Their Countrymen." Not at all subtle.


Campaign ribbon. Silk. 1840. Rosenbach Museum & Library. 2006.7650

The picture at the bottom of the ribbon is also masterful--it incorporates a rustic cabin, a flag, and a military background, thereby managing to combine all the pro-Harrison messages into a single image. The log cabin is shorthand for the Whig Party's focus on Harrison as frontiersman. The rough-and-ready everyman image was as popular a strategy then as it is now, even if it required glossing the facts a little (Harrison came from a very prominent Virginia family and was born at Berkeley plantation before heading into the territories as an army man and politician). The flag and tents in the right background are, of course, a reference to Harrison's military career and the Whig attempt to frame him as a war hero. To top it all off, a long-rayed sun rises (I assume) behind the hill, highlighting both the industry of the early-morning ploughman and the dawning of a new political day. All of this neatly conveyed in a woodcut image about two inches across. Just imagine what these guys could have done with Facebook!

(By the way, 80% of the electorate turned out to vote in 1840 and Harrison squashed the incumbent Martin Van Buren 234 to 60 in the electoral college, although the popular vote was a much closer 53%-47%)




Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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