Why Presidents' Day?

Why Presidents’ Day? – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2012
By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell, The Halloween Queen®
Lincoln, Jefferson, the two Roosevelts, and Adams both father and son, were great men and worthy of days of their own. For decades February 22nd was celebrated by the people to honor the man they most revered until special interests decided to place every president good, bad, indifferent, effective, etc. into one stew pot and what has come out to be served to the American public isn’t quite palatable to many. Observing some of the presidents from our first, Washington, 1789-1797, we find that besides political buttons there are many items that can be collected. Some presidents caught the heart of the citizenry and many souvenirs of their lives were made while others hardly any. Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln and JFK are a few that one can find a plethora of items. The Kennedy Hotel in Bolzano, Italy is almost a shrine as the amount of Kennedy memorabilia there is staggering. President Washington’s items, the hatchet that chopped down the mythical cherry tree made as a candy container or as a pin to wear, along with hundreds of different postcards as well as figurines of the first president are highly collected. Sadly, there are very few items of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Monroe, Harry Truman, FDR, and Woodrow Wilson, so they are difficult to find and more often it is memorabilia to commemorate a state visit or to a signing of a treaty.

So many presidents have been members of the Masonic order and a series of cards was done to commemorate those who were. Harry Truman, was amongst them. Each card is worth approximately $10. There is a wonderful series of George Washington in his Masonic regalia showing some of the important symbols that were so dear to many of the founding fathers. These cards are fairly common as a cachet of them was found about 30 years ago and is now integrated widely in dealers stock and in collections.

M.A. Sheehan of Topanga, California produced a handmade original Serigraph set that was very limited and includes all presidents from Washington through to Harry Truman. A complete set with its original cover is valued at $600. When sold individually they sell from $10 to $35 each. Prices vary as some of the presidents are more in demand or their images are scarce, however it is the affection and esteem that people have for a president which made them want souvenirs in his life time as well as collectors years later.

Franklin Pierce from New Hampshire was a tragic figure, a one term president, who was backed by the South. After his son was killed in an accident, Pierce literally could not cope with the duties of his office as well as his wife’s overwhelming grief along with his own. He was very ineffectual as a president and there is very little Pierce memorabilia and therefore few collectors.

The Civil War gave us Lincoln and Grant both of whom were very colorful and popular figures. There is probably more Lincoln memorabilia and more Lincoln collectors than there are for all the other presidents combined. Bronze statues, plates and bookends, figurines and thousands of books are avidly sought after. One item that seems to be the Holy Grail is the blood soaked-stained bandages used while Lincoln lay dying. It seems amazingly cruel that the Drs. kept probing the wound to make it bleed. These pieces of cloth were sold even as the president lay dying! Even Edgar Allen Poe could not have thought that one up! Laura Keene’s dress which she wore in “Our American Cousin” also, had the president’s blood on it as Keene held his head in her lap and tried to give him some comfort until they unceremoniously carried him across the street.

Photography was in its infancy at this period of time but many of the carte de visits were done by names like Gardner and Brady which are a step up on the taste scale…in other words they cost more. Anything to do with the Civil War is hot right now with reenactments and historic tours everywhere a battle or squirmish took place.

West Virginia was born out of the Civil War as it succeeded from Virginia after Virginia succeeded from the union. West Virginia did not exist as a state as it was part of Virginia. It became the restored state of Virginia and part of the union. Later, with Lincoln’s blessings, it became West Virginia but also, remained the restored state of Virginia until after the war was over. Reenactments of the debates and process of these events have been occurring for the last year at Independence Hall in Wheeling which has been restored to how it looked 150 years ago. Independence hall is where all the debates took place and the ballots cast to remain with the union and later to become a separate state.

Civil War history real and fancied is much more prevalent in areas where battles were fought and thousands died. Or where great decisions were made, events occurred, or stories like Gone with the Wind became reality rather than fancy to many people. If you do not believe this check with the tourist board in Georgia to see how many people ask for directions to Tara!

Lincoln’s death put Andrew Johnson into the White House. This was not a pretty picture of Presidential demeanor. However, to give Johnson some credit he did fight the Secretary of War tooth and nail and kept him from usurping the government, just as he tried to do under Lincoln. Many people believe that John Wilkes Booth was just carrying out Secretary of War Stanton’s orders. Certainly many people at the time thought so especially, as he was the only man who could have removed the pages from Wilkes Booth’s diary. Those pages would probably have hung Stanton. If those 18 pages were to show up on an auction block today how many millions would they be worth? Anything relating to a president as important as Lincoln is of interest. But to know exactly what was written on those pages could prove the Secretary of War was the main conspirator… Amazing. Let’s face it, John Wilkes Booth was just a poor actor who would do anything to obtain the glory and fame of his father and brother. He might have been better looking than Edwin Booth but Edwin was an even greater actor than his father and Wilkes Booth only inherited the Booth name not the talent and he had an overwhelming ego. No one would even remember him today if he had not pulled the trigger that put a nation into mourning. Stanton had an ego as well and he wanted power. He had the cunning and guile to manipulate and use others and did not care who he destroyed or had eliminated in order to obtain what he could never obtain at the ballot box. The items that have been produced over the years involving conspirators are part of the mystery and saga of the presidents involved.

One cannot separate what affects a president’s actions from the people around him. Nixon went to China. It was a great accomplishment. But then there was Watergate and Mitchell, Halderman, etc. advisors and law breakers who felt they were above the law. Unfortunately that is what will be remembered of Nixon except by Opera lovers who enjoy the Opera “Nixon in China.”

Caricature of presidents and their deeds and misdeeds have been in newspapers, magazines, and periodical since before this country became a country. Harpers Weekly is full of wonderful satire about the doings of presidents. The George Bush postcard from 1990 put out by Preziosi Postcards is a perfect example and when you look back 50 to 150 years ago times have not changed much.

Remember the Roosevelt Bears? Teddy was being made fun of for being the great white hunter with a soft spot and then all of a sudden there was one of the biggest collectibles of all times… Teddy Bears! Teddy’s ego hurt his party and his third party candidacy not only lost but split his own voter base so the opposition won. “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is often interred with their bones…”

I will not tell a lie…you will have to look long and hard to find a President who few cannot say much of the evil they did. In my opinion, George Washington deserves his own day, February 22nd, and he does not deserve to share it with anyone. Next thing we will find that it is expanded to honor Dewy and Willkie and so on.

Washington gave dignity and respect to an office which represents the Constitution which is what makes this country what it is. Presidents come and presidents go. Some are good, some are great, and others leave much to be desired but there is only one “Father of his Country.”

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