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presidential campaign buttons

A selection of presidential campaign buttons from the Cornell University Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, including recent gifts from Robert D. Schultz. Photo: Cornell University Library.

Political Americana presidential campaign collection bolsters library's holdings

display panel showcasing campaign collection items

A display panel showcasing items from the political Americana collection. Photo: Cornell University Library.

Robert D. Schultz's interest in the stuff of politics started early.

As a high school sophomore, Schultz '77, MBA '78, volunteered for U.S. Rep. Richard Ottinger '50, who was running for the New York U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Robert F. Kennedy. Schultz held on to some campaign paraphernalia, and years later, he began to actively search for more.

In the course of a marketing career that led him to meet and work with several presidents, Schultz amassed a collection spanning more than three decades, from the campaigns of John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton. Items included standard convention fare like buttons and posters, to the odd and whimsical, such as a set of children's plush slippers decorated with illustration of Ronald and Nancy Reagan tucked into bed.

Over time, Schultz began to wonder what to do with his collection, which grew to fill 26 boxes in his attic.

"I knew my kids wouldn't be interested, and my wife called me a hoarder. My first inquiry was to Cornell, and they were so enthusiastic," he says. "I'd much rather give it to my beloved institution than sell it."

FDR pipe and other political campaign items

An FDR pipe among other political campaign items in the collection. Photo: Cornell University Library.

Schultz's gift, with its focus on modern presidential campaigns, was an ideal complement to the Susan H. Douglas Political Americana Collection, part of Cornell University Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC), which includes campaign artifacts dating to the United States' earliest days.

Among Cornell's most famous American documents are copies of the Gettysburg Address in Abraham Lincoln's handwriting and the Thirteenth Amendment signed by Lincoln. RMC also preserves thousands of other artifacts large and small that tell important stories about U.S. politics, history and culture.

"We are so grateful to collectors like Bob Schultz, who not only recognize the historical importance of everyday objects that many people take for granted -- like promotional campaign giveaways -- but who take the extra step to gather and preserve them, and who are generous in sharing them with future generations," says Katherine Reagan, RMC's curator of rare books and manuscripts. "This is a wonderful addition to a subject area in which Cornell University Library has collected for nearly 70 years."

Robert D. Schultz

Robert D. Schultz '77, MBA '78. Photo: provided.

To Schultz, political campaign memorabilia perfectly matched his interests in history and marketing.

"It's both the sense of history that they provide, and about the packaging and selling of the candidates," says Schultz, who lives in New Canaan, Connecticut, and owns The CauseWay Agency, a marketing communications firm that works with national nonprofit organizations and government agencies. "As a marketer and advertising professional, I'm intrigued by the messaging, by the way campaigns position their candidates, the imagery that's used. They package candidates just as we package and position products and services, using similar strategies and tactics."

Jimmy Carter, promoted as a trustworthy peanut farmer, is the perfect example, he says.

"His smile was such an important part of his campaign, and I think it projected a certain image of him as approachable and friendly," Schultz says. "That was pretty smart marketing."

Beginning in October, items from Schultz's collection will appear alongside older political Americana in an exhibition in RMC's rotunda, on the lower level of Kroch Library. Reference specialist Heather Furnas, Ph.D. '14, organized campaign memorabilia by gender, with items targeting women, such as pantyhose, sunglasses, cookie cutters and fans, in one case, and swag aimed at men, including cigars, cigarettes, matchbooks and playing cards, in another.

"This was just one of many possible ways to show how campaigns have targeted specific demographics over time," Furnas says.

roll of toilet paper with Jimmy Carter caricature

Novelty items in the collection include a roll of toilet paper printed with a caricature of Jimmy Carter (along with the words "I've hit bottom with Jimmy!"). Photo: Cornell University Library.

Mean-spirited campaigning has a long history in politics, but increasingly vulgar items appear in more recent years, such as toilet paper printed with a caricature of Carter (along with the words "I've hit bottom with Jimmy!"); a Hillary Clinton nutcracker, which uses her "stainless-steel thighs" to crack shells; and John McCain and Barack Obama-branded condoms. ("Old but not expired" and "Use with good judgment," respectively.)

Household items, such as soap and sponges promoting candidates, have been popular campaign giveaways from the early 19th century to the present.

Though Schultz says his focus has always been on historic, rather than contemporary campaigns, he has noticed recurring trends and topics.

"Nixon's line was 'Nixon: Now More Than Ever,' and I keep coming back to that line as I think about the current presidential election," he says. "Every election has a sense of urgency and import."

At Cornell, Schultz studied consumer economics at the College of Human Ecology and received his MBA from Johnson as part of a five-year program.

"I feel so indebted to Cornell; I'm a proud Cornellian," he says. "The idea that the collection could be seen as something of value to Cornell just made it all worthwhile. I'm so glad this collection, which took me decades to accumulate, could find a home for future generations."

display panel showcasing campaign collection items

A display panel showcasing items from the political Americana collection. Photo: Cornell University Library.

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