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Posters and Election Propaganda

A blog dedicated to the examination of communications in election campaigns, with a focus on posters

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Posted by Steven Seidman at 1:40PM   |  Add a comment
Julius Kessler, The Lost Bet (1893). Parade with banner showing portraits of Grover Cleveland, Adlai Stevenson, and John Altgeld (Library of Congress)

Political banners have been used for a couple of centuries in the United States. At first, they were printed on cloth, and much later on vinyl for outdoor use. Many of these banners were (and still are) locally made, simple, and featured block lettering. Banners have been commonplace at rallies and parades.

The Whigs introduced two unique ideas to election campaigns: one was to use a potent symbol—the log cabin (often combined with soldiers and a jug of hard cider)—for their aristocratic candidate William Henry Harrison, the party's candidate for president in 1840, depicted as a rough-and-ready, common farmer; the other was the creation of silk flag banners, which added a portrait of Harrison and the phrases “Old Tip” and “The Hero of Tippecanoe” to the American flag. Some of the Whig rallies, with banners unfurled, drew an estimated one hundred thousand people, perhaps attracted by the seemingly endless supplies of hard cider. A variety of banners were produced, some with an eagle holding a scroll with the Whig candidates’ designations “Tip” and “Ty” (for Harrison's vice-presidential candidate, John Tyler) in its beak and the slogan “Our Country is safe, in such Hands.” One observer counted one thousand banners in a Baltimore parade for Harrison. Most cloth banners continued to be relatively simple in design: one for the Republican national ticket in 1884 imparted only the last names of the candidates on a cloth with three stripes (one red, one white, and one blue), and a row of stars.

Banners with candidate portraits soon were widely deployed. A print (shown on the right) of a parade in Chicago for the 1892 Democratic Party national ticket shows a large cloth banner overhead, portraying candidates Grover Cleveland and Adlai Stevenson, as well as the Illinois governor, John Peter Algeld. About this time, flag banners were dying out, and flag desecration laws (passed at the beginning of the twentieth century) ended the practice of printing candidates’ names, symbols, and slogans on flag backgrounds.

By 1912, banners seemed to be omnipresent at election time. In that year, the New Jersey Republican League issued a report on its primary campaign to defeat President William Howard Taft for the party’s nomination, stating, “Banners are swung across the streets in every city and town of importance, extolling the candidates." Several companies printed campaign banners (for which only a few standard designs were available) on cloth, and some of the candidates’ portraits were painted by hand. At the end of the nineteenth century, one could order a thirty-by-forty-foot banner with portraits at a cost of between $112 and $140; without portraits, they could be purchased for $80. Taft generally stayed in the White House, with his banners proclaiming “Better be safe than sorry.” By 1928, banners were draped on automobiles for Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith.

Small cloth banners (typically colored in red, white, and blue) were popular campaign items in the 1930s and 1940s, displaying mottos and slogans, such as “God Bless America,” as well as drawn portraits of the candidates. One of these (shown on the right) exemplifies a patriotic banner from this period (from the 1932 campaign), depicting FDR, with flags and an eagle, "blessed by God." 

In later elections, plastic banners were evident. One, in 1968, for example, proclaimed “Nixon’s the One!” Another, seen at the Republican convention in 2004, included most of the defining words from George W. Bush's acceptance speech, “We will build a safer world and a more hopeful America.”

 


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