Listen to CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or any of the major networks, and they’ll tell you day after day what a nasty campaign we’re in for this fall. Red states vs. blue states. Tea Party vs. Liberals. North vs. South.
But our campaigns today pale in comparison to some of our past presidential elections. Many were quite nasty, and quite personal. Nothing quite illustrates this as well as a couple of metamorphic cards from the 1880 election campaigns of Winfield Scott Hancock and James Garfield.
Metamorphic cards were quite popular in the last half of the 19th Century. These were cards that were folded so the lower third of the card folded up to cover the middle third. It was printed front and back, and when folded up, showed one illustration, but when the flap was dropped down, it created a new one. This new illustration was usually something unexpected, many times exactly the opposite of what was shown in the first illustration. Many had a humorous tone.
Metamorphic cards were used to advertise various products, from elixirs to shoes to department stores. They were also used to advertise political candidates, such as these cards for Hancock and Garfield in 1880.
You need to take yourself back in time here. The Civil War had ended just 15 years before, and the segregated South was still trying to overcome those wounds under the constraints of Reconstruction. The Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, remained strong in the north. James Garfield represented the Republican Party in this election. His reputation as a ladies man and a womanizer followed him through to the election. The first metamorphic card shows Garfield as he might want to be viewed, “a model of propriety,” as the card says. When the flap is opened, however, it shows him dancing with a dance hall girl named “C. Mobillier.” This was in reference to the Credit Mobillier scandal that involved $50 million in government overpayment to this company for the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. Garfield in years past had been implicated in the affair, but nothing was ever proven. The card ties his womanizing past to the scandal itself. The back of the metamorphic card contains a poem quite unfavorable to Garfield.
The second card is an anti-Winfield Scott Hancock card that shows him first as a proud rooster, crowing “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo” on the closing date of the Democratic Convention that nominated him. When the flap is folded down, it shows a skinny, bloodied rooster with the election date below. That seems somewhat tame, until you turn the card over and read the racist poem on the back trying to tie Hancock to racist Democrats in the South.
These two political collectibles are tough to find, but are still out there. The anti-Garfield one is much more difficult to find than the anti-Hancock one. Garfield would win the election, but die in office six months later.
It’s hard to imagine this fall’s Obama-Romney election approaching the nastiness of 1880. But stay tuned.
Many thanks to Indiana collector Tom Huston for sharing the illustrations of the Garfield and Hancock cards in his collection.