Politicking at Saratoga

shows crowd arriving at Union Hotel in 1865.
Nineteenth-century politicians flocked to the springs in the summer after Congress adjourned.  The heat of Washington and other coastal cities and the attendant danger of disease made retreating to the wooded up-country sensible as well as agreeable.  Beginning around 1800, inn-keepers built large resorts there to accommodate the need.  The most well-known and successful of such resorts grew up around the site of healing mineral springs, in towns like Saratoga Springs, New York; White Sulphur Springs, Virginia; and Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania.

Each resort drew guests from across state lines, making these watering-holes ideal for politicking.  White Sulphur attracted visitors from throughout the Upper South, while Saratoga drew its custom mainly from New York and New England.  Bedford drew politicians from across the mid-Atlantic states.  It was also a haven for officials whose duties kept them in the capital during the summer months.  James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, spent the summers of his presidency at Bedford Springs.

The resorts really took off after the creation of steamboat and railroad lines.  In combination, the steamers and trains made it easy for travelers to reach the resorts from New York City or Washington, DC.  The Union Hotel in Saratoga, shown above, grew hectic after the arrival of the daily ‘steamboat train.’  Many of its passengers came by boat up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany, where they caught a connecting train carrying them the rest of the way.

The trunks’ labels identify guests hailing from Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania.  The male crowd in the foreground means business, for they’re laden not only with trunks but with valises, no doubt crammed with correspondence and other papers.  They hobnob before blending into the pleasure-seeking crowd of women and men who throng the hotel’s ‘office’ (lobby).

Only an elite class of Americans could afford to leave home for the sake of summer leisure.  The wealthy and influential persons gathered at the resorts were exactly the sort whose support a politician needed to prevail in the November election or achieve the goals defining his political career.  The patriotic names given to many of the hotels at Saratoga and elsewhere (the Union, the American, the Congress) attest to the political functions they tacitly served.

Image:
‘Appearance of the Office of the Union Hotel, Saratoga, New York,
on the Arrival of the Steamboat Train from Albany,
from a sketch by Mr. Albert Berghaus,’
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 12, 1865.
From the Yates Collection of Saratogiana at Skidmore College.
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Susan H. Douglas: She Collected the Stuff of American Politicking

Presidential portrait tray from the Susan Douglas Collection at Cornell University

Their heads on a platter: Presidential portrait tray.  Susan H. Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Susan Havey Douglas (1901-1962) was an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother whose husband, Damon G., ran a successful commercial construction firm in New Jersey.  Susan, a native of Yonkers, NY, had dropped out of college to marry her husband.  Damon was a graduate of Cornell, where he had studied engineering.

'William H Harrison and Reform' Portrait Textile from the campaign of 1840 (Courtesy Cornell University Library via the Commons on Flickr)

‘William H Harrison and Reform’: A piece of fabric incorporating political images from the ‘Log Cabin’ campaign of 1840. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

The Douglas’s children were Damon Jr., and two daughters, Sally and Susan.  The latter died of a streptococcus infection and spinal meningitis at the age of seven, a heartbreaking loss occurring in 1936.

GOP elephant bank from the 1900 presidential campaign.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

GOP elephant bank from the 1900 presidential campaign. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Mr Douglas was a serious collector of coins by then.  He wrote papers on numismatics and served as president of the New York Numismatic Society circa 1940.  A passion for collecting gripped the family.  Around 1941, his wife, ultimately the more notable collector, began visiting curio shops with her son to help him fill out his “Lincoln and Indian penny-board collection.”  There, she began noticing campaign memorabilia, which became her special branch of collecting.

Campaign 'coins' from the 1830s, expressing various views of Andrew Jackson and his monetary policies.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Campaign ‘coins’ from the 1830s, expressing various views, some satirical, of Andrew Jackson and his controversial money policies. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.  One coin depicts Jackson as a Roman emperor; another, as a pirate, waving a saber in one hand and bag of gold in the other, proclaiming, “I take the responsibility.”

Among the first items Douglas bought were old campaign medals, which resemble coins. They were but one of many types of political objects she collected over the next twenty years.  Wonderful in its size and range, her collection eventually encompassed 5,500 items, including sheet music, engravings, hair combs, convention ribbons, political torches, posters, lunch pails, pin boxes, tea trays, even beer glasses stamped with the images of political heroes and wannabees.  (I have often featured pictures from her collection on my blog.)

Snuff boxes and campaign medals bearing the image of Zachary Taylor, along with other political ephemera dating from the late 1840s.

Snuff boxes and campaign medals bearing the image of Zachary Taylor, along with other political ephemera dating from the late 1840s.

Beginning at a time when few collectors cared about these items, Douglas amassed a large and important body of American political memorabilia, including some of the earliest campaign trinkets ever made.  Dating from the late 1820s-1840, these early objects were invented at a time when American politics was becoming more thoroughly democratized, and industrial advances made it possible to produce cheap objects to mobilize the masses and build political community.  Ultimately, Douglas’s collection spanned an entire century, containing items up through the 1940s.

Candle lantern from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign, stamped with the slogan "Four Years More of the Full Dinner Pail."  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Candle lantern from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign, stamped with the slogan “Four Years More of the Full Dinner Pail.” Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Such objects expressed the bonds between political leaders and their followers, providing voters with a tangible means to express opinions and loyalties.  Ephemeral objects that instead proved surprisingly long-lasting, the items preserve by-gone political ideas and passions, while offering clues to how politics featured in the lives of ordinary people.  As political ideas and customs have changed, so too have the props of political theater.

By the 1950s, the caliber and breadth of Mrs Douglas’s collection had gained recognition.  In 1952, the US State Department borrowed 500 items for a government-sponsored exhibition to be displayed in London at the Pan American Building.  According to the Mason City Globe Gazette, which interviewed Mrs Douglas in 1956, “17,000 Britons visited the exhibit, which portrayed political Americans and was designed to help Britons understand the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign then underway.”

In the late 1950s, Mrs Douglas sold her collection of political Americana to Cornell University Library.  She died in Orange, New Jersey on April 14, 1962.  Her collection has been digitized and is freely accessible to the public online.

A canvas bag, circa 1920, the year American women won the right to vote.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

A canvas bag, circa 1920, the year American women won the right to vote. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.  Did Mrs Douglas use this when she was young?

Left unanswered is what motivated Douglas as a collector.  Why did she have such a passion for political things?  Why was she so in love with the ‘love affair” that is part of every presidential campaign?  Douglas came of age in 1920, just as the long campaign to secure women’s right to vote reached its glorious culmination.  When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified that year, she became part of the first generation of American women free to vote and participate in politics on an equal footing.  Whatever the source of Douglas’s enthusiasm, it continues to light up our sense of political tradition.

© 2014 Susan Barsy.

Presidential Selection

Washington Death Mask

Halloween is just around the corner, when, by tradition, all souls departed return to their earthly haunts for a night.

Were the spirits of our Founding Fathers to be among them, I wager that no change in our political system would astonish them more than the monstrous process we rely on to fill the presidency.

Certainly, the bitter and protracted process we have today bears little resemblance to the simple one that twice elevated our first executive, George Washington, to the post.  Washington, whose spotless reputation helped reassure Americans that the novel office of a civilian executive could be filled responsibly, was the near-unanimous choice of the small group of electors, appointed by the state legislatures, who gathered to settle the issue in 1789 and again in 1792.  He did not campaign for the office, and no promises were made.

Washington, as famous for his ardent federalism as for his total abhorrence of political parties, would be horrified at the prevailing partisan strife and competition.  He would find appalling the careerism that prompts unfit and unlikely candidates to vie for eminence.  He would be chagrined to learn that our national energies, which should be devoted to the arduous work of governing, are instead being diverted into a vitiating quest for party supremacy, which dominates a greater part of the calendar with each election cycle.

Above all, Washington would revile the self-aggrandizing impulse that, as it continues unchecked, erodes the vitality of a great government whose genius rests on interdependency.

Image: Life mask of George Washington, from this source.