Sometime when I was in grade school, I heard the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Years would pass before I knew what it meant. I knew it was a presidential campaign slogan from way back, but did not learn until later that it was a phrase from an 1840 campaign song for William Henry Harrison (who led the troops who defeated Chief Tecumseh at the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana) and John Tyler. What's remarkable is that the phrase has lived on, that its cadence has made it the sort of thing you'd unthinkingly mutter to yourself over and over again. The song was written by a Zanesville, Ohio, daguerreotypist, Alexander C. Ross, who set his words to a popular minstrel song. Ross was no professional political operative, yet his song is widely credited with helping Harrison, a Whig, to defeat the incumbent Democrat, Martin Van Buren. (Alas, Harrison died one month into his presidency.)
The introductory text for "If Elected: The Game of American Politics," a small but endlessly entertaining exhibition that the New-York Historical Society has drawn from its own collections, tells us that direct campaigning by presidential candidates began in 1828 with Andrew Jackson, who resorted to aggressive tactics to avenge his 1824 loss to John Quincy Adams. But "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" seems to be the first presidential campaign slogan.
"If Elected" brings together a wealth of campaign ephemera, including banners, kerchiefs, bandannas, scarves, sashes, license plates, bumper stickers, paper lanterns, shopping bags, fedoras, a lady's dress, neckties, a kerosene lamp, thimbles, sewing boxes, bottles, a board game, hairpins, tie clips, key chains, cigars, a cigar box, matchbooks, and my favorite cigarette packs. As for the last, in 1952 you could show your political allegiance by smoking Eisenhower cigarettes or Stevenson cigarettes. Basically, anything that your eyes might alight upon in the course of a day has been emblazoned with campaign imagery or verbiage.
A display case is reserved for campaign buttons. The modern campaign button originated in the 1896 presidential campaign that pitted William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan. That's when the first "celluloid button," or the metal button covered with paper protected by clear celluloid, emerged. In 1916 (Woodrow Wilson against Charles Evans Hughes) slogans began to be printed directly onto metal.
Photo buttons go back to Lincoln in 1860, but, unless I missed one, "If Elected" features no photo button prior to 1896. From that year there is a button with a photographic double portrait of William McKinley and his running mate Garret Hobart.
Best of all is a gorgeous photo button, on a tasseled blue silk ribbon, showing New York's own Levi Morton, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination against McKinley in 1896. The display case also includes a ribbon from 1844 with the rather lengthy text "Henry Clay / and / a protective tariff / no annexation of Texas / no extension of slavery / with Henry Clay / We'll win the day / And Home Industry defend; / With Polk and Dallas / We'll go to the gallows / Free trade and Texas send." Whoever came up with rhyming Dallas and gallows probably thought himself very clever.
From 1952 or 1956 there is a white cotton sundress (displayed on a mannequin) repetitively imprinted with the word "Ike." The woman wearing the dress may also have liked the Eisenhower hairpin. John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson sewing boxes (1824 and 1828, respectively) in silk and paper (from the collection of Henry O. Havemeyer) are part of a domestic theme that persisted more than 100 years, or at least until the 1928 Calvin Coolidge thimble.
William Henry Harrison old Tippecanoe also pioneered the log-cabin imagery that became a staple of campaigns. A kerchief identifies Harrison as "The Ohio Farmer" and shows a log cabin. On an 1896 banner, McKinley stands like a preacher next to the prosaically beseeching text: "My friends / You shall have / prosperity / with full protection / believe me." Not quite the ring of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too."
Bandannas were once popular campaign items. One from 1912 shows a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in his full frontier regalia, surrounded by the stylized letters "TR." The central symbol is a red cowboy hat. That color shows up as vividly in a 1932 Norman Thomas red kerchief bearing an image of hand and torch.
The kitschiest item in the show is a 1960 rayon kerchief in which a remarkably awful color portrait of a pensive John F. Kennedy is bordered by stylized American flags. Such a piece only serves to highlight the show's centerpiece, the 1864 Abraham Lincoln paper lantern, which the society purchased from the great sculptor Elie Nadelman in 1937.
The colored print, on one of the lantern's four panels, of a rather youthful-looking but sad-eyed Lincoln is exceptionally moving. On another panel appears a variant of the Great Seal of the United States, in which the eagle holds a shield bearing the stars and stripes and the word "UNION." The lantern tin, glass, paper is simplicity itself, a simple box with a scalloped knob on top. Its aged metal, cracked glass, faded paper, and beautiful imagery combine to make it far and away the most emotionally satisfying item in "If Elected."
Until January 20 (170 Central Park West, between 76th and 77th streets, 212-873-3400).