By William Bender, Staff Writer
Posted: March 22, 2016
Attention political junkies: Put down your smartphones, and head over to the Union League for a real-life lesson on every political convention held right in our backyard over a century-and-a-half.
“Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia,” a new exhibition on the ground floor of the Union League, debuts Monday and covers the 11 political conventions hosted by the city between 1848 and 2000. It will run until early 2017.
“Philadelphia was a happening political town,” said exhibition curator James Mundy.
Philly will be a happening place again in July when the Democratic National Convention comes to the city. Only Chicago has hosted more political conventions, with 25.
Exhibition attendees are greeted with a video message from Mayor Kenney and can peruse memorabilia from each convention, from 19th-century mudslinging cartoons to giant political handkerchiefs.
“Think of these as the bumper stickers of the day,” said Mundy, holding up a handkerchief from the Fremont-Dayton convention of 1856, when slavery was the hot topic and Republicans ran their first candidate in a presidential election.
At the 1948 convention, Mundy said, officials set up fans and ice blocks to keep delegates from succumbing to a heat wave.
Democrats adopted a civil rights platform and the segregationist Dixiecrats broke away from the party.
“That was the beginning of the modern Democratic Party as we know it,” Mundy said.
The exhibition is chock full of buttons, photos, drawings, speeches and other items from the convention floors.
Philadelphia, now regarded as one of the best beer cities in the country, had a problem in 1936 when the Democrats held their first convention here: Blue Laws prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays. So a fix was needed. “They suspended the Blue Laws so everyone could drink,” Mundy said.
The GOP did the same in 1940, and the liquor again flowed on a Sunday.
“They were practical thinkers,” Mundy said.
The exhibit also includes quirky memorabilia, from the elephant-shaped cookie cutters of 1948 to the custom-made Barbie dolls for George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” convention in 2000. The dolls were white, black, and Asian.
“They were going to be as inclusive as they could be,” Mundy said.
Even Kraft Foods chipped in that year with some politically shaped mac ‘n’ cheese. “The macaroni were shaped like elephants,” Mundy said.
Don’t miss the collection of satirical political cartoons, which are brilliantly over the top. Example: The 1848 cartoon bashing the Whig candidate, Army Gen. Zachary Taylor. He’s sitting on a mound of skulls representing the Whig Party’s principles.
“Now, you go on TV and yell at somebody,” Mundy said.
The exhibition is presented by the Union League’s Abraham Lincoln Foundation in partnership with the Philadelphia History Museum, which lent 35 items.
The grand opening will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The exhibit will be open to Union League members seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The public can visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m., and on the second Saturday of the month from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.