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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.