Starting with George Washington and later with Abraham Lincoln, the memorabilia of presidents has provided a significant source of collecting. It doesn’t hurt either that President’s Day honoring them all is an annual holiday.
For the traditionalists it should be noted that the federal Office of Personnel Management still calls the third Monday in February simply Washington’s Birthday. However in recent decades it has generally become known as President’s Day and even has that official status in many states.
Ultimately the holiday salutes all presidents, and hence calls attention to mementos that have memorialized them in the past.
“For every American president there’s a trail of mementos,” observed author Stan Gores some years ago. “At times, the path may be narrow and almost impossible to find. But the clues of history are there, linked by a huge array of artifacts that mirror the interesting lives of our chief executives.”
Collecting presidential memorabilia “allows a smooth blending of the old and the comparatively inexpensive new, as presidents come and go in the White House,” Gores noted in the volume, Presidential and Campaign Memorabilia.
Presidential collectibles are generally distinguished from campaign items in that they deal with memorabilia produced while the chief executive was in office, or at some point after leaving office.
Historians suggest that George Washington’s birthday was first celebrated nationally in 1796, the last full year of his presidency. Interestingly under the ‘modem’ calendar Washington was born on February 22. However under an earlier calendar in effect in England and the American Colonies at the time of his birth, the date was February 11. Therefore, according to published accounts, some citizens celebrated on one date in 1796 and other citizens celebrated on another date.
Washington’s birthday was a notable national event by the early 19th century. The celebrations included something called Birthnight Balls in many parts of the country. There were also gatherings for speech giving and elaborate receptions.
For Abraham Lincoln the celebration of his birthday generally followed the year after his 1865 assassination when Congress gathered for Memorial Address in February of 1866. “Lincoln’s death had a profound impact on the public,” according to Stuart Schneider author of the book Collecting Lincoln. “Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated in office. He had just presided over the country’s bloodiest war and saw it to its conclusion. He was re-elected by a landslide and he was just about to guide America into a post war peace.”
Thus Lincoln keepsakes were sought almost immediately after his death even though his birthday did not become a holiday until many years later.
The nation’s Centennial celebration of 1876 saw a great deal of Washington related material and a much lesser amount of Lincoln items. Washington was depicted on china mugs, glass bread plates, and cups and saucers. Some of the pieces were plainly marked Centennial 1776-1876, but other pieces were not marked or otherwise identified.
During the 1880s there was an appreciation of occupants of the White House which included images of them on distinguished plates with gold trim. Both President Grover Cleveland and President Benjamin Harrison were so honored. Inaugural events were generating presidential souvenirs in the 1890s. Among them a Benjamin Harrison ribbon with the image and message “Our President” below a symbolic eagle and American flag. In 1893 the inauguration of Grover Cleveland and A. E. Stevenson provided a number of items. One of the most rare was a Public Comfort badge and ribbon made by Whitehead and Hoag. Accounts later said less than 150 ribbons for those particular volunteers were issues, and very few of them included the accompanying silvered medal.
Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 saw a wave of more Washington related items ranging from ceramic pitchers to silk bookmarks. There were also Exposition ribbons paying tribute to President Cleveland and other past presidents.
In 1903 striking Wedgwood plates pay tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt, One particular blue and white issue with a leaf-design border included quotes from a speech delivered that year in Syracuse, New York. Similar plates and other ceramics would become a standard for all presidents, particularly as inaugural items, in the decades that followed.
Lincoln memorabilia witnessed a major resurgence early in the 20th century with the official observance of the Lincoln Centennial in 1909. The fallen president was depicted on the penny coin for the first time that year. Moreover he was also depicted on pin back buttons, plates, plaques, and prints. In sheet music The Lincoln Centennial Grand March was published by E. T. Paull, and there were also books and badges.
The wide popularity of the Lincoln Centennial was probably demonstrated by the vast number of postcards featuring the president according to Schneider. There hundreds of them created by an assortment of publishers from the Centennial itself into the early 1920s. In 1923 President Warren Harding’s Pacific Coast Tour warranted the issuance for color red, white and blue pin back buttons. Each button bore Harding’s image surrounded by American flags.
By 1930s the nation saw its first, but short lived, President’s Day. The event organized in part by the Hearst newspaper chain honored the birthday of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 30, 1933. There were first day covers on envelopes and postcards. In the state of Minnesota postcards were issued, “in appreciation of our leader’s achievements in the hope of his continued health and success.” The cards also noted that the state had three towns with the names Franklin, Delano, and Roosevelt. FDR’s birthday continued to be celebrated by various groups during the 1930s but it was not given any official status.
During the decades that followed much of the ‘in office’ material relating to presidents revolved around the periodical inaugurals. Typically these included buttons, printed invitations, and various badges.
Congress enacted legislation in 1968 which related several federal holidays. It declared that Washington’s birthday would be observed on the third Monday in February of each year whether it fell on the 22nd or not. The effect of the act was to provide the public with a three-day weekend instead of just an idle day in the middle of a winter month.
A few years later in 1971, President Richard Nixon signed a presidential proclamation declaring the original Washington holiday to be President’s Day. Nixon declared it was “the first such three-day holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself.”
Soon a problem arose when legal experts pointed out that apparently presidential proclamations do not supersede the rule of law, and therefore the legal holiday at the federal level remains Washington’s Birthday. Nationally however President’s Day has become a widely accepted term and many states now use that particular designation in their holiday statues.
Unchanged by all this is the growing collector interest in presidential memorabilia.
“Thousands who already collect presidential mementos have found it to be a rewarding, satisfying, and intellectually stimulating hobby,” commented author Gores many years ago. “But most of all, it’s just plain fun.”