Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sudsy Politics: Then & Now

Awash in campaign ads, anticipating its share of the $700 billion bailout, and looking forward to tonight's town-hall debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, "Poetry & Popular Culture" looks backward more than a century to the presidential campaign of Republican Benjamin Harrison, who served one term as President from 1889-1893. Without radio or tv at his disposal, Harrison found an unlikely poetic campaign ally and endorsement from Snow & Silver Soaps manufactured by Thompson & Chute of Toledo, Ohio, which—on the trade card pictured above—plugged Harrison's campaign with a little ditty titled "Victory":

Election day is near at hand,
To choose the President of our land—
One of honor, strength and hope,
Who uses SNOW and SILVER soap.

In every place, from every mouth,
From east to west, from north to south,
The people's voice will sure attest,
That SNOW and SILVER are the best.

The wrappers, too, will bring a treasure,
Which gives unbounded joy and pleasure.
Mail twenty in to our address,
A gift most rare you will possess.

Forgive "Poetry & Popular Culture" for being a little bit cynical in noting that Snow & Silver soaps fail to mention Harrison by name in their advertising poem, relegating his likeness to the reverse side of the card. I wouldn't be surprised to find a similar card published by Snow & Silver that has Grover Cleveland—Harrison's Democrat opponent and then-incumbent president—pictured on it as well. Indeed, like Big Oil or any industry seeking a lobbying presence in D.C. today, Snow & Silver soaps is playing two sides at once (literally), possibly even using the same vague poetic endorsement to promote both candidates. After all, as their poem indicates, the soaps' desire is more to ensure their own commercial success than to endorse any particular candidate or platform.

Indeed, Snow & Silver is positioning itself not just as an equal opportunity endorsement, but as a purer expression of American democracy than the election! Buoyed by "the people's voice" and available to one and all, the soaps offer—at the minor inconvenience of sending in a couple of wrappers—"a gift most rare" to any American seizing the chance. Characteristically vague in this respect as well, the ad withholds what, exactly, that gift will be: a $10 gas card? A new hybrid? An oil slick in Alaska?

If all this sounds eerily familiar, consider that we were talking a lot about the Cleveland/Harrison election a few years ago when Al Gore won the popular vote and our beloved W won the electoral vote. Indeed, it was the 1888 election that saw the Democrat Cleveland win the popular vote while sudsy-slick Republican Harrison took the electoral vote. Karl Rove or no Karl Rove, it's clear that, a century later, political endorsements, campaign ads, and the U.S. electoral system have yet—soap or no soap—to clean up their acts.

Postscript: In the time since the foregoing entry was posted, I had occasion to contact University of Illinois professor of English Cary Nelson, who has assembled a very large archive of 19th- and 20th-century advertising poetry. Nelson has confirmed my suspicions that, yes indeedy—you guessed it—Snow & Silver did in fact issue a trade card with the likeness of Cleveland on one side and the same "Victory" poem (pictured above) on the other. Pick a card, any card: it's business as usual.

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