AMERICAN politics has appeared on American medals since George Washington was president. During the entire 19th century, politicians used medals to identify themselves, tout their causes, and trumpet their slogans.
While anyone could have a medal made at the Philadelphia Mint, the United States Treasury early on wisely ruled that no political medals could be struck by the Mint. That regulation alone helped to firmly establish a medal industry in America. It gave rise to one- and two-man diesinking shops in the largest cities that supplied political candidates with the medals they desired to distribute to voters.
One has to remember that not every voter in mostly rural America could read, and here was a low-cost item bearing the candidate’s name and usually his portrait. These medals could be handed out freely, but you just could not have the Philadelphia Mint strike them.
A few mint medals did slip by however. A Lincoln Medal of 1864 bears on its reverse the inscription: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AN HONEST MAN THE CRISIS DEMANDS HIS RE-ELECTION 1864. This dime-sized medal, called a “Cabinet Medal,” is part of a series of small medalets struck at the Mint bearing the portraits of notable presidents and widely muled1 with each other. (That Lincoln medal is Julian PR-35 of U.S. Mint medals, King 112 of Lincoln medals, and DeWitt AL 1864-72 of political medals – collectors love those catalog numbers!)
What killed off this custom of dispersing small political medals was the invention of the celluloid pinback button near the end of the 19th century. It provided the name of the candidate, sometimes his portrait and occasionally a slogan, similar to political medals. These could be made, often in color, at a much lower cost than political medals, and they are still popular today.
Those 19th century political medals are widely collected, perhaps because so many were made for so many candidates over the entire century. They have their own organization, American Political Item Collectors, and, of course, catalogs of these.
One of the largest collections of political medals and related items was amassed by J. Doyle DeWitt, president of Travelers Insurance of Hartford, Connecticut. Of course, his original 1959 catalog, A Century of Campaign Buttons, 1789-1889, aided in collecting these items. Nobody complained that he called these medals buttons (some did have tiny holes at the top to attach to a pin to be worn). He ended his catalog in 1889, because that was the beginning of the celluloid pinback buttons.
DeWitt included other items along with the medals in his collection. This included portrait badges and shell badges, ultimately to include ferrotypes – with an actual photo inserted in a metal shell frame. To this he added all the other political paraphernalia, flags, banners, ribbons, paper objects – the variety is endless.
He donated his vast collection to the University of Hartford where it is located today. I had the pleasure of poring over its contents when the first curator, a very knowledgeable Edmund B. Sullivan, was in charge. Sullivan wrote three books on the collection, including Collecting Political Americana.
Modern Political Medals
Issuing political medals continues today, but less so for campaigns. They are more often issued for inaugurations – the official installations of successful political campaigns – and for fundraising. And, oh yes, for satirical purposes. Medallic Art Company struck a series of five medals for Robert Julian (the same Julian that wrote the catalog on U.S. Mint medals) satirizing four presidents and Douglas MacArthur.
It should be noted, however, that politicians are different from all other people. (Isn’t that a true statement!) Custom has evolved that you can put a politician’s portrait on a medal without having to obtain his permission. Such a proviso exists for no other group of people. It is an invasion of their private rights (and if they are a celebrity they will demand a royalty for doing so). I guess politicians feel the more exposure the better.
A search of Medallic Art Company’s archive of medals reveals ten with a Democrat as either the name of the client or the name of the medal. This contrasts to 58 with a Republican name. These are mostly for the national committee, occasionally for a state committee (one Democrat, three Republican), or even a local committee. The purposes of these medals are widespread – inaugurations, fundraising, conventions, and such in addition to outright campaign medals.
I do not believe the political party disparity is due to any bias in the firms officer’s or salesmen’s political beliefs. Since it is their business to strike medals for any client, their own personal politics should not apply. It is apparent, however, Republicans are far more likely to issue a medal than Democrats for any kind of event.
Campaign Medal Confusion
Just to make things interesting there are two kinds of campaign medals in the numismatic field. Political campaign medals, just described, and military campaign medals. The later are issued to military service personal who serve in a military or naval campaign. They are hung from ribbon drapes and intended to be worn on a uniform. They are collected by members of the Orders and Medals Society and will be the subject of a different article later on.
Presidential Inaugural Medals
Medallic Art Company dominated the issuing of presidential inaugural medals for three decades. These are the pinnacle of the political medal spectrum and a prize piece of medal business. This series is so important it likewise deserves a separate article all their own. There are three books on the subject, one of which was published (by the author) as a collectors’ guide.
1 The word “muled” is used to describe a coin or medal that is minted from two dies that were not originally intended to be struck onto obverse and reverse of the same medal.