Sunday, March 8, 2009

Old Election Posters

I love looking at historical posters and imagining what the mindsets were of the people who made them and the viewers who saw them. In the 1840 election campaign, it was sufficient for William Henry Harrison to portray himself as an ordinary farmer, complete with plough and log cabin. It's interesting to compare this to the formal portrait of Harrison on the Wikipedia site. You'd never guess from the Wikipedia portrait that he'd ever dirtied his hands in the soil. Obviously the "eagle" image was a big deal in American politics since it appears on many election posters across time, including the next one from William Jennings Bryan, part of the 1900 election campaign. The iconography here is dense and far more complex. On the bottom left, a female figure in white, presumably Columbia, wields a hatchet against an octopus whose limbs represents various different special interests groups. On the bottom right is a reference to the then recent Spanish-American war, and continuing conflict in the Philippines. Bryan accused the incumbent administration of imposing an American colonial dictatorship over Cuba and the Philippines in place of the previous Spanish colonial dictatorship. The two bells at the top of the poster read "1776 Liberty" on the left, and "1900 No imperialism" on the right, presumably an attempt to contrast the American fight for liberty against American "imperialism" in Cuba and the Philippines. Beneath the bells, the phrase "no crown of thorns, no cross of gold" is a quote from a then-famous 1896 speech by Bryan, denouncing attempts to move to a gold standard, back in a time when a silver dollar really was (partly) silver. Harkening back to the old idea of farming as the heartland of America, there's a rooster, and a plough, though in reality by 1900 America was becoming increasingly industrialized. Finally, in this very crowded visual image, there's the blind figure of Justice, and the Statue of Liberty.
Phew! Our final image is from the 1904 campaign of Eugene Debs. Like the Bryan poster, it's filled with images, but the images represent a quite different picture of America. Here are the farmer and the industrial worker joining together to cast their ballot above a pilaster that reads "workers of the world unite." Unlike Bryan's poster, which proclaims abstract moral issues ("liberty, justice, humanity"), Deb's America is a sweaty place, full of industry. From the bottom right we see a locomotive rushing forward into the future; a weaver on the loom; a miner; a farmer (but not a single farmer like Harrison, or a single plough, like Bryan -- rather several farmers working together behind a team of horses); a machinest; a foundry merrily belching huge plumes of smoke into the air; and a ship perhaps representing sailors or international trade. And what is up with Hanford's necktie? Obviously it's meant to imply "I'm not one of those toffs -- I'm a working man, like you." Despite the appeal to the working man, however, Debs garnered only 3% of the vote.

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