200 Years Of Strange And Embarrassing Presidential Campaign Artifacts

If Donald Trump has reached higher than other men, it’s only because he stands on the shoulders of crazy giants.

Donald Trump’s hair is disturbing. But it’s not the most frightening thing that presidential campaigners have ever worn on their heads. That distinction goes to Grover Cleveland’s crew during his 1888 campaign. It was a fashion of the times for candidates to promote themselves in nighttime events known as “torch parades.” Because before the advent of electricity, lighting was available by fire only.


So Cleveland’s people wore medieval, oil-filled burning helmets that rested just inches from their hair, eyes, and noses.

“It seems extraordinarily dangerous,” laughs Alan Lowe, curator at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. “But it appears that these torch parades were popular from 1860 to 1890.”

Cleveland’s torch helmet is one of 118 presidential campaign artifacts on display now at the Path to the Presidency exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. From Bill Clinton’s Ray-Bans he wore on the Arsenio Hall Show to a pair of Ronald and Nancy Reagan slippers (each foot gets its own Reagan), the installation features more than 200 years of strange campaign artifacts–some released by the presidential campaigns, others by mere supporters and profiteers–which reflect the values of our times and also the petty campaign warfare between candidates.

“There’s a great peanut shaped like Jimmy Carter–that was such an important part of his imagery,” says Lowe. “And then we have a campaign button from Reagan that says he was going to crush the peanuts.”

Likewise, while the campaign of 1960 brought us a board game about the Kennedys, it wasn’t meant as some ironic, self-aware pun like “Feel the Bern” is used today. Rather, it was likely released by some entity on the Nixon side, as, from the museum description, “players each assumed the role of one member of the Kennedy clan and compete with each other in a contest for national prominence in these categories: 1) personal image, 2) influential friends, 3) social standing, 4) position of importance, 5) popular support, and 6) backing of a power group.”

That’s not to say the beautiful, full-maned JFK didn’t get the last laugh against his sweaty cueball rival, because 1960 also brought the voting public a comb that read “comb the Nixon out of your hair.”


Sometimes, the campaigns maybe went a little too far with the name calling. During the 1896 campaign between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley–what Lowe calls the first modern campaign–Bryan was a great orator who traveled the country giving stump speeches. McKinley wasn’t much of a speaker himself, so, instead of taking Bryan on in public speaking, hired the first-ever campaign manager to organize a highly coordinated counterassault.

“There are some things that would be done that we wouldn’t necessarily do nowadays,” Lowe says. “In the 1896 campaign, there’s a little doll shaped like a coffin. It says, ‘This man was talked to death’–by William Jennings Bryan.”

But the purpose of these artifacts wasn’t always just dirty politics, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln. As he approached the Republican National Convention, it may be surprising to learn that he still wasn’t a very well-known candidate, and he wasn’t considered the favorite to get the nomination. But Lincoln had a secret weapon: a biography.

“[His camp] put out a biography, a book, so people would know his life story,” Lowe says. “I know that had been important in introducing him to the campaign.” And to this day, we see the power of biographies and books to serve as a portal to get to know a candidate. Obama released a memoir before he ran in 2008, Hillary Clinton has released several (her latest timed strategically in 2014), and even Trump’s old Art of the Deal has been one of the best-selling books on Amazon this campaign season. And in that sense, biographies encapsulate everything great about the best campaign artifacts.

“There is a certain universal nature to the artifacts we have here. They all talk about the person and try to illuminate an idea or position a person has. In that way they’re somewhat timeless,” says Lowe. “The torch on the head wasn’t a keeper. Otherwise, it is interesting to think that there are some universal things out there in getting a message out and packaging who you are and what you’re about.”


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach