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Political Collection At Mercantile Library 'Makes History Real'

This Sunday an exhibition called “Presidents and Politics” opens at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

The campaign buttons, posters and cartoons on display seem quaint compared to this year’s high-tech presidential race, but they also show American politics has always been spirited.

The memorabilia is part of the Dr. Allen B. and Helen S. Shopmaker Political Collection, a gift to the Mercantile Library.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman spoke with fine arts curator Dr. Julie Dunn-Morton about the collection, and started by asking why the Shopmakers were attracted to political materials.

Dunn-Morton: The story that we had from Mrs. Shopmaker was that her late husband had decided at one point that she needed to collect something; sort of that she needs a hobby. Her family had been very interested in politics. I believe her father had some role in the Democratic National Convention at some point and she remembered as a child being taken to the convention, and so they were very active politically. It was an area of interest for her and a natural fit.  

Altman: So what are some of the earliest campaign materials that you have?

Dunn-Morton: We have some materials that do have images of Washington, although it’s not clear if they were used during the election or if they were made in a commemorative way, perhaps a few years afterward. I think the real strength of the collection probably starts in the 1910s and 20s.

Altman: So here’s an interesting pin with an elephant and it looks like the tail can be pulled.

Dunn-Morton: Yes, this is a nice little commentary on what people thought was funny at the time and it does show the elephant with the candidate’s head at the top and it says “pull for your candidate,” and if you pull the elephant’s tail the candidate’s head moves back and forth. Clearly that was amusing at the time, which today is something we might not do.

Altman: And then we see a “Dewey in ‘48” matchbook. We don’t see those anymore.

Dunn-Morton: That’s very true. You’ve picked up on something that’s really interesting in terms of political correctness in the collection. We find so many candidates with their names on a pack of cigarettes or a box of cigars or being promoted in advertising by a tobacco company. It’s just not something people would do. We have shot glasses (in the collection). People aren’t necessarily going to do that today.

Altman: So this is a bigger piece (laughs).

Dunn-Morton: Yes, we’ve been talking about a lot of little bitty buttons and small items, but this is one of the most dynamic pieces in the collection. When we were first talking to Mrs. Shopmaker she said, “Well, one of the interesting things I have is one of the Florida voting booths.”

Altman: I bet your jaw dropped.

Dunn-Morton: It did. I was actually speechless and I thought, “How on earth did you get that?” Well, she found it for sale; someone had it. What’s interesting is that it’s one of the portable ones; it folds up to be sort of like a briefcase. It’s very easy to carry. But what’s really great is that we still have ballot sheets, the yellow punch cards that slide in. It still has the candidate information and the little punch pin and you can actually see what the whole hanging chad issue really was about. The lines don’t match up; there’s no hole to punch for Bush and then there’s an extra hole at the bottom and then the arrows don’t match up with the hole, so you literally would not be able to tell who you were voting for.

Altman: This really will help people who don’t remember that election visualize what the issue was.

Dunn-Morton: Even in terms of all of the electronic voting now. There are people voting now who’ve probably never experienced a punch card. And so this is the kind of thing that can just make history real. Right now, somewhat, but 50 years from now, absolutely.

Altman: I have to ask, what’s your favorite piece?

Dunn-Morton: My favorite piece is actually the gold bug and it had to do with the battle over the gold standard with (William) McKinley and (William Jennings) Bryan and it’s actually in the shape of a bug; it’s gold; and it has McKinley and (vice presidential candidate Garret) Hobart, one on each wing in a little circular portrait. And originally when you had the pin on you could push this little tab at the bottom and the wings would move up and down.

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.