Some objects retain their charm long after their usefulness is gone. This 180-year-old sewing box, bearing the words “Victory to Jackson,” is one of them. Notwithstanding its worn corners and faded velvet, it is still expressive of a quiet, feminine hope, cherished at a time long before any American woman had the right to vote.
This exclusion did nothing to keep women from following politics and having political opinions anyway. I would have loved to see this box and its owner back in the day. Who was the owner of this rainbow-colored trinket, and where had she gotten it? How had she become a Jackson supporter? Was she a rural or a city dweller? And was the box homemade?
The elaborate materials of the box are impressive for 1828 or 32, when it would have been made. The stamped metal trim, the multi-colored dyed velvet, and the special, machine-stamped, fabric inset on top, with its crisp flags and still brightly emblazoned lettering, suggest that its maker had easy access to goods made in factories. The way the fancy velvet coordinates so perfectly with the colors of the inset top makes me wonder whether this might have been a mass-produced item. The box’s interior, though, with its pasted-in picture of Jackson—probably taken from a newspaper or quarterly—, is so shrine-like that it’s tough to avoid concluding that the item was homemade.
Certainly, the creation of this political trinket was painstaking. Even the cardboard box that supplied its core was heavily worked over. The result is a powerful item, that, whether placed in a sitting room or used quietly by a hearth, was not just a proud declaration of sentiment but a daring conversation piece. Who could see such a thing in a woman’s home and not begin talking?
The object of all the fuss was General Andrew Jackson, who in 1828 made a no-holds-barred bid for the presidency. His campaign was famous for its unprecedented reach, for tapping into popular loyalties to vanquish a retrograde elite. Once in office, he was a tireless champion of democracy, and, though his years in office were remarkable for their controversy, he easily won election to a second term.
Jackson had true star power. He was widely celebrated as a military hero. In an age when Americans relied on newspapers, letters, and word of mouth to get their news, he is said to have been the most widely known figure in the country. Everyone knew who he was. If nothing else, they knew he was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans—the man who, in vanquishing British troops in 1815, had given Americans a new reason to be proud of their nationality.
His broad fame engendered curiosity about what he actually looked like, making likenesses of him prized. Such likenesses could then become objects of adoration, as had clearly been the case with our sewing-box lady. To obtain the likeness of a leading man wasn’t an easy thing. It’s not surprising that, when photography came along in the 1840s and 50s, politicians were among the first to have their pictures taken.
We are far removed from the world that once worshipped its heroes. Politics was no less nasty then than now, but the emphasis on excellency was more thorough-going. The political realm was the only one promising true celebrity, leading the best men to compete there for popular affection and renown.
At the same time, statesmen’s practical remoteness made it easier for citizens to cherish their own homemade visions of their leaders, endowing them with fantastical virtues and showering them with the love that was once regarded as one of the chief compensations of public service.
The sewing box is part of the Susan H. Douglas Collection of Political Americana
at Cornell University Library, which has made digital images of it publicly available via Flickr Commons.
To see other items in the collection, click here.
Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections
Susan—what a remarkable object! Jackson did mark a important change in American politics, away from the landed gentry (if you will) to people like himself and Van Buren. Jackson was a military hero like Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, (TR?), Ike, JFK, and even 41. Van Buren was a career politician—like (not sure about Filmore, Pierce, and Buchanan) Lincoln, Arthur(?), Cleveland, Taft, Truman, Johnson, and Clinton. But except for TR I do not think any of these guys was especially wealthy. Jackson’s background was extremely humble.
Jackson lost the 1824 presidential election. It was decided by the House of Representatives (something that should have been done in Bush v. Gore, rather than having the Supreme Court’s disgraceful and lawless decision in that case). What do you know about that election? I think Jackson felt the election was stolen from him; could the box date to that election?
Thanks Bob–Interesting comment. Jackson was quite different from other presidents who came before him, particularly in having an undistinguished parentage, experiencing poverty early in life, and having little formal education. By the time he was an adult, however, he did take on a lot of characteristics that increased his similarity to other statesmen of his time. He gained military fame (like Washington) and gained a social position and connections partly through his marriage to Rachel Donelson (which was later assailed as a bigamous union). I would encourage anyone interested in Jackson to visit his Tennessee home, the Hermitage, which is a historic site today. It reminds you that Jackson was a wealthy, landed gentleman of considerable gentility and of course a slaveholder too.
I have written about the 1824 and 28 elections in an earlier post. I don’t think the sewing box was made for the election of 1824 because it didn’t have the same sort of popular campaigning that was 1828’s most distinctive feature. The materials on the box were more likely to have been available at a later date; I surmise this is why the curators at Cornell assigned the late date of 1832 to the box.
Thanks again for your comment and have a good weekend–
An interesting essay. I like the way you “wove” the popularity of “old Hickory” into your discussion of the quaint sewing box….I have read that Ol’ Hickory was elected by pretty large margins and that therefore some consider him to be one of the “fathers” of the idea that a popular mandate justifies a president in actively pushing his own agenda.
You raise an interesting point. Yes, Old Hickory (as Jackson was known) did regard himself as “the people’s sovereign” and he regarded himself as justified in opposing the will of a legislature that he believed too often served elite interests. Jackson’s “pushing” often entailed use of the “pocket veto”–a form of “negative” power that he was the first to discover and use. Jackson refused to validate the will of Congress; as a result many of Congress’s pet projects died.
Interestingly, Jackson was a big fan of efficient government and worked long and successfully to reduce and I believe eliminate the government debt. He also showed his willingness to use his authority to keep the Union together. His administrations were tempestuous, which is probably what we should expect whenever a president is as strong-minded as Jackson.
Jackson was a man of the west…he was a populist and rabble-rouser in many ways. I visited his home in or near Nashville…I recall there were slave quarters on the property….but the slaves were just property, not humans, right?
Jackson “the hero of New Orleans” in the War of 1812 made common cause with the likes of the pirate Jean Lafittle and won the Battle of New Orleans after the war was over (Treaty of Ghent, 1814)….He also “liberated” FL from Spain and in the process killed some British subjects by summary executions……Interesting the way we acquired FL: We offered Spain $5 million and said take it or leave it, cuz we ARE taking FL anyway….that was in 1819.
As POTUS Jackson carried on a war with the elite and destroyed the National Bank, causing a financial panic in the process…..He despised American Indians and kicked them out of Georgia, violating a Supreme Court order saying they had the right to stay there. Jackson’s response: Let them enforce their rule; I want them out, and that was that. Hard to imagine a POTUS today like the fabled Old Hickory…
His personal life with filled with feuds, threats, insults, and duels….he killed several men and had a bullet near his heart from a duel that was never removed…The question of women voting would have seemed preposterous to the “man of the people.” Frankly, I think AJ was actually crazy…
Would you not have voted for him, then, had you been alive at the time? Maybe the snobs were less objectionable. . . .and would have finessed more on the issues. Interesting, hypotheticals. . .
Jackson was a strange character……his record speaks for itself……he has apologists; I am not one of them. Would I have voted for him? In the election of 1828 most white men could vote….his opponent was John Quincy Adams……I would have voted for JQ for a lot of reasons…….btw: JQ was the only former president to become a member of the House of Representatives…….naturally women could not vote…….
I think I too would have voted for John Quincy Adams, had I been alive (and enfranchised) at the time. He was an admirable character. And yes, like some other former presidents (but perhaps alone of those in his time), after the presidency his life had one more significant political chapter. In fact, that may have been the most admirable period of JQA’s long and honorable life, when he began pushing for more debate on slavery in the House.
I have never tried to go through every election and figure out who I would have voted for, but it would be an interesting exercise. The thing about Jackson is that he was great in influence–like some of our other most powerful presidents, he pushed the nation toward what it has become. Without Jackson, the country would have been quite different, I think; without JQA it might have been much the same.
JQA was Secretary of State under President James Monroe……his accomplishments as SofS were amazing. He actually wrote the “Monroe Doctrine” and brought to fruition all goals of American diplomacy from the Revolutionary Era to that date……..his presidency was not very successful. The campaign against Jackson was vicious with JQA calling Jackson basically a thug, criminal and worse…….the country was changing and Jackson embodied the hopes of the so-called common man……..most white males could vote then and the old eastern dynasty was played out. If you saw “Amistad” you saw JQA at his best…….
Of the elections in my life I would have voted for Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, and the ones I was old enough to vote: LBJ, against Nixon twice, for Carter, against Reagan, against GHW Bush, for Clinton, for Gore, for Obama…….most times I lose…….
Have you done any more research on this or other political sewing boxes? I am looking into them for my masters thesis on 19th-century Presidential campaign objects, especially those made for women or for use in the home. There are several versions of the Jackson sewing box, all with the same printed image under glass under the lid, but with different stenciled slogans on the pin cushion. There are also a few examples created for John Quincy Adams in the same election (most likely 1828), again with the same print of JQA under the lid, but different slogans on the pin cushion. I would really like to find out more about their production and distribution. Given the quantity and quality of examples, I believe they are mass produced. In some cases, they have been called “French pin boxes,” which means that they may have been imported. Have you found any advertisements or notes on ownership for these types of political objects?
I appreciate your getting in touch on the subject. Everything you say is interesting, and new to me.
In fact, after I wrote the post “Worshippers” I began to ask myself why I had assumed these were “women’s things.” After all, couldn’t the Jackson box be, just as easily, something given to a man to store his cufflinks or shirt-studs? And (since I had seen only the photograph, not the box itself) this was encouraged by considering the box’s small scale. The male narrative I constructed was that these were given to key Jackson supporters out of gratitude–status-laden souvenirs that the men could either use themselves or pass on to their wives. . . .That is one possible hypothesis you can try to disprove. If, as you say, there was a genre of non-political objects of which these are a special example, it would be important to establish how those other “french pin boxes” were used and by whom.
The particular box I wrote about might not have been as “feminine-looking” when it was new. Its colors would have been primary, and garish. How does it jibe with what we know about fashion, tastes, and sentimental accoutrements of the time?
Finally, I agree with you that the pin box probably was not a home-made item–not only because there are others like it that are extant, but because of the elaborate materials, the stamping, the detailed construction of the interior. Who would have access to such materials? Very few people in America in 1828, I would think. But who would have come up with the idea of having the boxes made? New Englanders? (unlikely, I know) Female friends of the Jacksons? Van Buren????? And to whom were they intended to appeal or be given? They strike me as “refined”, which might mean coastal and urban. . . .
If I were doing this project, I would leave queries on Flickr Commons in the comments section under views of the box and contact Cornell U to ask about its provenance. Do they have others like it, or know of any? Curators at Winterthur, or at the Hermitage or the Quincy Adams birthplace might have information. . . .But now I’m probably being obvious!
Would love to hear what you find in the end. Feel free to write me–click on the contact link on my “About” page to send a private email to me. Best of luck! Susan Barsy