Susan H. Douglas: She Collected the Stuff of American Politicking

Presidential portrait tray from the Susan Douglas Collection at Cornell University

Their heads on a platter: Presidential portrait tray.  Susan H. Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Susan Havey Douglas (1901-1962) was an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother whose husband, Damon G., ran a successful commercial construction firm in New Jersey.  Susan, a native of Yonkers, NY, had dropped out of college to marry her husband.  Damon was a graduate of Cornell, where he had studied engineering.

'William H Harrison and Reform' Portrait Textile from the campaign of 1840 (Courtesy Cornell University Library via the Commons on Flickr)

‘William H Harrison and Reform’: A piece of fabric incorporating political images from the ‘Log Cabin’ campaign of 1840. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

The Douglas’s children were Damon Jr., and two daughters, Sally and Susan.  The latter died of a streptococcus infection and spinal meningitis at the age of seven, a heartbreaking loss occurring in 1936.

GOP elephant bank from the 1900 presidential campaign.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

GOP elephant bank from the 1900 presidential campaign. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Mr Douglas was a serious collector of coins by then.  He wrote papers on numismatics and served as president of the New York Numismatic Society circa 1940.  A passion for collecting gripped the family.  Around 1941, his wife, ultimately the more notable collector, began visiting curio shops with her son to help him fill out his “Lincoln and Indian penny-board collection.”  There, she began noticing campaign memorabilia, which became her special branch of collecting.

Campaign 'coins' from the 1830s, expressing various views of Andrew Jackson and his monetary policies.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Campaign ‘coins’ from the 1830s, expressing various views, some satirical, of Andrew Jackson and his controversial money policies. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.  One coin depicts Jackson as a Roman emperor; another, as a pirate, waving a saber in one hand and bag of gold in the other, proclaiming, “I take the responsibility.”

Among the first items Douglas bought were old campaign medals, which resemble coins. They were but one of many types of political objects she collected over the next twenty years.  Wonderful in its size and range, her collection eventually encompassed 5,500 items, including sheet music, engravings, hair combs, convention ribbons, political torches, posters, lunch pails, pin boxes, tea trays, even beer glasses stamped with the images of political heroes and wannabees.  (I have often featured pictures from her collection on my blog.)

Snuff boxes and campaign medals bearing the image of Zachary Taylor, along with other political ephemera dating from the late 1840s.

Snuff boxes and campaign medals bearing the image of Zachary Taylor, along with other political ephemera dating from the late 1840s.

Beginning at a time when few collectors cared about these items, Douglas amassed a large and important body of American political memorabilia, including some of the earliest campaign trinkets ever made.  Dating from the late 1820s-1840, these early objects were invented at a time when American politics was becoming more thoroughly democratized, and industrial advances made it possible to produce cheap objects to mobilize the masses and build political community.  Ultimately, Douglas’s collection spanned an entire century, containing items up through the 1940s.

Candle lantern from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign, stamped with the slogan "Four Years More of the Full Dinner Pail."  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Candle lantern from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign, stamped with the slogan “Four Years More of the Full Dinner Pail.” Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Such objects expressed the bonds between political leaders and their followers, providing voters with a tangible means to express opinions and loyalties.  Ephemeral objects that instead proved surprisingly long-lasting, the items preserve by-gone political ideas and passions, while offering clues to how politics featured in the lives of ordinary people.  As political ideas and customs have changed, so too have the props of political theater.

By the 1950s, the caliber and breadth of Mrs Douglas’s collection had gained recognition.  In 1952, the US State Department borrowed 500 items for a government-sponsored exhibition to be displayed in London at the Pan American Building.  According to the Mason City Globe Gazette, which interviewed Mrs Douglas in 1956, “17,000 Britons visited the exhibit, which portrayed political Americans and was designed to help Britons understand the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign then underway.”

In the late 1950s, Mrs Douglas sold her collection of political Americana to Cornell University Library.  She died in Orange, New Jersey on April 14, 1962.  Her collection has been digitized and is freely accessible to the public online.

A canvas bag, circa 1920, the year American women won the right to vote.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

A canvas bag, circa 1920, the year American women won the right to vote. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.  Did Mrs Douglas use this when she was young?

Left unanswered is what motivated Douglas as a collector.  Why did she have such a passion for political things?  Why was she so in love with the ‘love affair” that is part of every presidential campaign?  Douglas came of age in 1920, just as the long campaign to secure women’s right to vote reached its glorious culmination.  When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified that year, she became part of the first generation of American women free to vote and participate in politics on an equal footing.  Whatever the source of Douglas’s enthusiasm, it continues to light up our sense of political tradition.

© 2014 Susan Barsy.

2 responses

  1. A very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it very much. You have a wonderful knack for writing about important political history which too many folks just don’t know about. Keep on trucking, Susan!!

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