The Story of the 1920 Election, as Told by Contemporary Graphics

1920s illustrations posters presidential elections sheet music art

After a long night of nervously watching the polls, I almost bailed out on writing a blog post this week, but since the current election is on everyone's mind, most likely including yours, I ultimately couldn't resist looking back one-hundred years at another election in the hopes of promoting a thoughtful discussion of our history as well as where we are headed.

As someone who has always held a deep fascination with graphic art, I've always understood the impact that graphics can have in such an event, and more to the point, what they echo back to us long after the storms have passed and they are left behind as a residue of what has been. In this case, with printing and typesetting technologies being what they were, it is no surprise that this particular election has left behind such a rich visual legacy from which we can learn about it.

These graphics will be presented in a list formation, each with an accompanying caption that explains the context of the image.

1.) Presidential candidate posters (circa. 1920): It is interesting to note the similarity of the messaging on these posters, as well as their near identical appearance, as such a presentation seems to detract from the level of differentiation necessary to influence voters toward one candidate or the other.

The top graphic shows James M. Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the candidates that lost the election. (However, despite losing his bid for Vice President, Roosevelt would later go on to become one of the greatest presidents our country has ever seen.) Cox and Roosevelt's platform consisted of mainly domestic issues, (which was seen by proponents of the newly established League of Nations as being disloyal thereto.) These domestic issues included lowering income and business taxes in order to fight inflation, as well as committing to the Volstead Act (which was enacted by congress with the intention of enforcing Prohibition.)

Cox ultimately lost to Warren G. Harding, largely owing to Harding's promise of a "Return to Normalcy." Americans were tired of the upheaval of the Wilson era, which not only saw America's entry into WWI, but also a new income tax and a global pandemic, and they were thus eager to take him up on that promise. Harding and Coolidge are shown in the poster directly above. (It is interesting to note that all but one of these candidates were eventually elected to the presidency.)

As a side note, the caption towards the bottom of each poster says "America First," which, to our ears, sounds like a chilling portent of Trump's use of the same words just before his 2017 Muslim Ban. However, as the following graphic seeks to explain, it had a much more significant role in politics, which we will explore even further.

2.) America First! poster by Howard Chandler Christy (1920): Despite Cox's greater emphasis on domestic issues, this poster clearly portrays Harding as a strong proponent of putting America first. This wasn't just a slogan, but was a more official stance on foreign policy which emphasized isolationism. Given this fact, and also the fact that America had recently been involved in one of the most cataclysmic armed conflicts in human history, we can conclude that this was just a part of his overall promise of a return to normalcy. (Interestingly, this motto dates back to the outbreak of WWI, being first uttered by President Woodrow Wilson as part of his short-lived promise to keep the United States out of that war.)

3.) What is Normalcy? (1921): This cartoon appears to have been an attempt to not only reveal what "normalcy" really meant to different classes of people, but also to conclude that this type of normalcy would most likely never be seen in the United States again.

Interestingly, critics of Harding's promise claimed that the word "normalcy" was a malapropism, and as many publications were changing the spelling to "normality," Harding himself stepped in and insisted that his spelling was correct. (The word normalcy, as per Harding's spelling, has actually been printed in dictionaries as far back as the 1850s.)

4.) Victory (from The Suffragist, September, 1920): The Women's Suffrage movement, which grew from humble beginnings at Seneca Falls in the early 1800s, had by this time gained such momentum that, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. This change had a profound impact on the election, as it created a vast new pool of voters that had previously been untapped. Additionally, the candidates faced mounting pressure to appeal to both men and women, since they no longer had the convenience of being able to ignore issues that were important to women.

5.) The Saturday Evening Post cover (art by Norman Rockwell, October 9, 1920): Nearly at the peak of election fever, (this cover was published less than a month before the election,) a husband and wife argue bitterly over their choice of political candidates. (In the graphic, the woman is holding pro-Harding paraphernalia, while the man holds a copy of a publication endorsing Cox.)

The 19th Amendment did create a rather interesting dynamic in households across the country in that, while voting was something that the male head of the household had been solely responsible for, now the wife was also taking part, making it a joint responsibility. And as those of us who've taken part in joint decisions know full well, there is usually a lot of negotiating to do. (As a side note, I can't even imagine the violent squabbles and wife-beatings that must have taken place behind closed doors in households where the husband was anti-suffrage. Certainly not anywhere near as innocent and playful as this painting, although perhaps some households were. At least I hope so...)

6.) Mr. Harding, We're All for You (1920): As with just about every other election that took place before sheet music lost its popularity, it too was used as paraphernalia endorsing political candidates. This is one such piece. Strangely, I've been unable to find sheet music endorsing Cox, whereas pro-Harding sheet music covers can be easily found.

Once again, note the phrase "America always first" in the lower left hand corner.

These are just some of the graphics representing the election of 1920, but maybe you can find more, and maybe you also have some ideas and insights of your own. If you do, please share them in the comments section below, and I will respond as soon as I can. In the meantime, I hope we all emerge from our current election unscathed.

Till next time.



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