Postcard Memories of Presidential Inaugurals

inag1By Roy Nuhn


This month America once again celebrates the inaugural of an elected chief executive – our 57th such happening.  Such ceremonies hark back more than two hundred years to April 30, 1789.  On that long-ago Thursday, George Washington stood in New York City’s Federal Hall and was sworn in as our first president.


More than 50 presidential swearing-ins have taken place during the life span of the republic.  Beginning in 1841, when a hatless and coatless William Henry Harrison caught his death of cold while delivering his inaugural address on a freezing and stormy March day, deaths – and a resignation in 1974 – have unexpectedly elevated nine men into the Oval Office. In all, we’ve been witness to 65 presidential inductions.


inag2Presidential inaugurals have always been gala affairs, a sort of national big bash that have often lasted several days.  Though the U.S. Constitution prescribes only the actual oath of office, much hoopla and many traditions have sprung up over the centuries. The themes, speeches, celebration balls and festivities of the inaugurals have been almost as diverse and unpredictable as the men who have served as president.


     George Washington, for instance, crossed over from New Jersey to New York City in a 47-foot barge rowed by 13 men dressed in white uniforms for his inauguration.  Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, merely walked one short block from his boarding house to the new Capitol for the ceremonies.  Returning shortly afterward for the dinner meal, Jefferson found his fellow lodgers reluctant to make room at the table for him because of his tardiness!


Then there was Jimmy Carter in 1977 who, hand-in-hand with wife Rosalynn, strolled his now famous mile-and-a-half inaugural walk. And, will historians ever tire of telling us about Andrew Jackson’s backwoods followers who took over the White House for the day in 1829?


The cost of putting someone into the presidency has ranged from the bargain price of only $11 for Martin Van Buren, in 1837, to Richard Nixon’s close-to-a-million tab in 1973, and beyond since.


Luckily for us taxpayers, the winning party, and not the government, picks up most of the tab for these extravaganzas. The Democrats or Republicans pay for them by issuing or authorizing a cornucopia of novelties, trinkets and commemorative items such as medals, sculptures, prints, buttons and hats.


Collectors of all stripes enjoy a wide choice.  Along with all the official items, there are literally tons and tons of inaugural memorabilia produced by large and small firms every four years to take advantage of the public’s interest or to sell to the hundreds of thousands of visitors flocking to the nation’s capital to witness the inaugural ceremonies.


Also to be found are newspaper and magazine pictorial articles all the way back to the 19th century, sheet music of specially-written inauguration ballads, as well as all sorts of unique postal ephemera.


Among the most reasonably priced and available of these are the many souvenir postcards of inaugurals published over the years.  Also, in the earliest years of the 20th century, a number of patriotic and presidential postcards have portrayed both inaugurals of the past especially Washington’s, and contemporary ones like Taft’s and Wilson’s.


Taft’s inauguration in 1909, and that of Wilson’s four years later, occurred during the picture postcard’s “Golden Age” and many cards were published about these two events.  Probably the best were done by the important commercial photographic and printing house I. & M. Ottenheimer, which produced lengthy multi-card sets of both the inaugural parades and the proceedings.  These easily rank as among the most significant of all presidential and historical postcards of the 20th century.


Patriotic greeting cards enjoyed widespread popular use on important national holidays in the years before World War I. Some featured George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s inaugurals, events that had become, with the passage of time, great historical happenings.  Raphael Tuck & Sons/ P. Sander and E. Nash were just a few of the many publishers which mass marketed postcards for Washington’s Birthday, Independence Day and Lincoln’s Centennial (1909) containing inaugural scenes.


In the late summer of 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge was vacationing at his father’s Vermont farm when word arrived of Warren G. Harding’s death.  At two o’clock in the morning of August 3, Coolidge’s father, a local magistrate, swore him in as president by the light of a kerosene lamp.  Postcards of this unusual scene and of the family Bible used were top sellers during the 1920s and early ’30s.


A few hard-to-find cards picture FDR, Ike and Richard Nixon taking the oath of office.  These are crowd scenes and the President is usually hard to find.


Closer to our own era are the postcards sold by Coral-Lee, small specialty California publisher, chronicling the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.  Among the several hundred different colorful chrome postcards published of current events, the presidency and important entertainers of the 1970s and 1980s by Coralie Sparre, the person behind the company, are a few excellent inaugural pictorials. Collectibles of all presidential inaugurals will soon be very much in the spotlight.  And none more so than the picture postcards printed and sold from 1900 to the present.  They are visual reminders of our heritage and history and very accessible to everyone.

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