What could be the world’s largest collection of presidential campaign memorabilia – buttons, brochures, hats, posters, stickers – more than a million items in total – is not on display. It’s tucked away, stacked box upon box, stacked floor to ceiling in a handful of storage units in Long Island City, New York’s Queens borough.
How it got there is much the same way a lot of things end up in storage.
The first item in Jordan Wright’s collection, which began when he was 10, was a button from Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Forty years later, through his hunting and gathering, Wright had amassed not only thousands more buttons, but also priceless pieces of political history. The centerpiece of the collection is an illustrated flag of George Washington used during the swearing in of the first president. In 2008, Wright died at the age of 50, just two weeks before his objects were to be displayed for the first time, in an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.
The exhibit continued, but soon after the memories were boxed in and the stories behind the objects were lost for years to come.
“The problem with my dad hoarding this collection and not sharing exactly what’s in it is that the knowledge was in his head,” said Austin Wright, Jordan Wright’s son, “he could tell you where where each item was and what it was, and where he received it.”
One of her favorite stories, according to her son, was about a doll, produced in 1896 by Democrats campaigning against Republican William McKinley. The doll depicts McKinley in a flag-patterned dress, but when turned around and the dress is pulled in the opposite direction, it becomes an entirely different doll, depicting an African American girl in a flower-patterned dress. It was used, Wright said, to remind voters of a rumor that McKinley had fathered an African-American child out of wedlock.
McKinley’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was also the subject of a negative campaign. Bryan, a renowned orator, was known for his long speeches. In response, Republicans produced miniature coffins that read “spoken to death”. Mr. Wright has one of the palm-sized novelties in his collection.
The story of the McKinley doll, miniature coffins and a thousand other objects lives on in Jordan Wright’s book, “Campaigning for President”, published in 2008. It ranges from a George Washington button to a bag George W. Bush boxing bag and includes, in the middle pages, Lincoln-era paper lanterns, a Teddy Roosevelt parasol, a Dwight Eisenhower cereal box, cans of “Gold Water”, a peanut toy with reassemble Jimmy Carter, a Ronald Reagan teapot and a Bill Clinton puppet.
What is still lacking is the encyclopedic knowledge necessary to organize these less notorious elements, the purview of Wright’s late father. Austin Wright aims to catalog, index, and eventually both traveling exhibitions and permanent exhibition space the more than one million items. To start this process, he estimates he will need to raise $1.5 million through a nonprofit he created, the Museum of Democracy. It’s a lot of money, but he says he has to find it for his father.
“He spent countless hours, three in the morning, four in the morning, keeping it, discovering new items that he wanted. I have to honor him, his passion and his legacy,” said Austin Wright , “And not only him, I think these objects deserve to be seen by the public.”