What you see: A circa 1900 28-inch-by-42-inch near-mint condition campaign poster for President William McKinley, who was running for a second term. Heritage Auctions believes that the poster could sell for $10,000 to $15,000.
Who was William McKinley? He was the 25th president of the United States. He was a Republican and a Civil War veteran who defended the gold standard and led the country through the Spanish-American War, in which America gained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines (this last eventually became independent). He also annexed Hawaii. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, went on to become president in his own right. An assassin shot McKinley in September 1901 and he succumbed to his wounds about a week later. He was 58.
Do we know how this campaign poster came to be? And did the campaign know they had a winner on their hands with this image? No, and probably not. “The two times he ran for president, McKinley stayed home in Canton, Ohio, and delegations came to visit him,” says Don Ackerman, consignment director for historical Americana and political material at Heritage Auctions. “Millionaire Mark Hanna financed the entire campaign. Most campaign materials were purchased and used by local Republican clubs and organizations. They didn’t have to be authorized by the national Republican clubs. Posters like this may have been custom-ordered, or may have been produced for Republican clubs.”
What details in this circa 1900 poster might be lost on 21st century viewers? “The word ‘Civilization’ is an unusual usage. It ties in with the expansionism of 1898 and the war with Spain. Republicans supported imperialism and justified that by saying they were bringing civilization to backward peoples,” he says, laughing. “Part of that is you see factories belching smoke. That was considered a higher level of civilization over people who fished and farmed. The large gold coin says ‘Sound Money’ on it, and refers to the gold standard. It was a big issue in 1896 and 1900. McKinley’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan, advocated greater use of silver. Republicans said that would devalue the currency and cause inflation, and if we stuck to the gold standard, it would maintain its value.”
What other details stand out? “The glowing sunrise in the background. Sort of like ‘Morning in America.’ Everything is bright,” he says. “And you have shipping on the left hand side and factories on the right–business is booming, we’re selling overseas, factories are at capacity. McKinley is shown with the flag, in an appeal to patriotism and showing America as a dominant world power. He’s supported by a group of men from all aspects of society. The man in the blue suit is a sailor. One on the left is a soldier, there to appeal to people who served in the armed forces and the Civil War–McKinley served in the Civil War. The man with the silk top hat is a banker or an industrialist. The guy in the center might be a waiter–they usually don’t wear hats. The man in the pale green shirt is a workman. McKinley is appealing to all segments of the voting population.”
I can’t help but notice that everyone shown in the poster is a white man. Is that deliberate? “Except for Wyoming and Colorado, women couldn’t vote [in 1900],” he says. “This [poster] is not necessarily a snub of minority voters. There were ‘Colored Republican Clubs’. The Democrats were associated with the south, and with slaveholders. Blacks were loyal Republican voters from the time of Ulysses S. Grant to FDR or later. I think the Republican Party figured that black voters who were permitted to vote were going to vote for them anyway.”
Where were these posters displayed in 1900? “They were in local Republican headquarters or in store windows,” he said. “The owners weren’t afraid to offend their customers. If they liked the Republican candidate, they’d put the Republican poster in the window.”
Maybe ten of these posters exist. How might this one have managed to survive? “If somebody liked it and thought it was nice, they would fold it and put it away,” he says, noting that this example has folding creases in it. “That’s how they got saved. If it’s properly stored and the paper is good, the colors will still be bright. This has a minor chip, but nothing that affects the image.”
The colors on this poster really pop, particularly the red and blue of the flag, and the yellow of the coin. How close are they to the colors that the poster would have had when it was fresh off the stone lithographic press? “Pretty close. They’re not faded or anything,” he says. “The ink they used doesn’t fade naturally. As long as it’s not exposed to sunlight, the colors are going to be as vibrant as in 1900.”
How often does this poster appear at auction? “We’ve sold three of them in the past, for prices ranging from $10,000 to $17,000,” he says. “The one that sold for $17,925 probably is the record for this poster, but I can’t say definitively.”
Why will this poster stick in your memory? “It’s a masterpiece of graphic political Americana, and probably the best McKinley poster, for sure,” Ackerman says. “It’s head and shoulders above most of the stuff we see from the period. This really grabs you. Political posters of this quality were only issued between 1900 and 1904, and of the different designs known, this is the most appealing. It’s got all the great elements you want to see on a poster. It tells a story, it refers to policies that were prominent then, and it reflects the exuberance that people felt for the political process. It was a new century, a new age, and people really felt good about themselves.”
How to bid: The circa 1900 William McKinley campaign poster is lot #43382 in The David and Janice Frent Collection of Political & Presidential Americana, Part 2, taking place at Heritage Auctions on February 24, 2018.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
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