Consuming Suffrage

Joanna  Lile 's picture

Leaders of every successful movement find ways to market their ideas.  They may develop catchy slogans, enlist celebrity support, and even sell merchandise.  It turns out that suffrage supporters and organizations “marketed” their cause through a wide range of consumer goods, from whimsical collectibles to practical household items.  Thanks to my thoughtful sister, who at Christmas presented me with Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study and American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog, I have been reading about the surprising array of suffrage memorabilia that was produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Professor Ken Florey, the author of both volumes, is a retired college English professor and a researcher and collector of suffrage memorabilia.  Best of all, this week Professor Florey sent KWSP photos of two Louisville suffrage ribbons.  Ribbons like these were, not surprisingly, used for suffrage conventions. The color yellow, used in the second ribbon, was popularized after Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and others wore yellow ribbons during their 1867 campaign in Kansas (they used yellow in honor of the state flower, the sunflower).  Prior to the 1890s, many suffrage ribbons were homemade.  The yellow ribbon was printed for the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s national meeting in Louisville in 1911.  Professor Florey speculates that the top ribbon, made of paper, may have been printed for the same event. 

Other items, such as handkerchiefs, calendars, and pencils would have been viewed and/or used regularly in homes, providing daily visual reminders of the suffrage struggle.  One calendar that Professor Florey discussed in Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia even included a pro-suffrage quote from Kentucky native Louis Brandeis!  Other items, such as tea cups and saucers, could have been used for entertaining, perhaps allowing individuals to more easily bring up the topic of suffrage in conversation.  Other objects were decorative items with little to no utilitarian purpose.  Professor Florey does a nice job of contextualizing the popularity of suffrage souvenirs, explaining that the interest in suffrage memorabilia was part of a larger interest in collecting in America and England.  Since I’ve been reading quite a bit of anti-suffrage literature from Kentucky religious leaders lately, I was interested in Professor Florey’s descriptions and photos of anti-suffrage memorabilia. Not surprisingly, such items, including postcards and figurines, frequently portrayed suffragists as masculine and even violent.  The designers of pro-suffrage objects, in turn, often went out of their way to make suffrage non-threatening.  Many postcards, for example, used images of children in their merchandise and portrayed suffragists as mothers.        

At KWSP we are preparing for a traveling exhibit to celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and honor the suffrage movement in Kentucky.  We would love to hear from our followers about any memorabilia or other artifacts that they or family members own.

Also, be sure to check out another great collection of suffrage memorabilia- the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Trust’s collection, which Louisville’s own Marsha Weinstein helped establish!  I for one enjoyed seeing the pro and anti-suffrage postcards in the collection:


Elizabeth Cady Stanton Trust

Finnegan, Margaret.  Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Florey, Kenneth.  American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

_____________.  Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.

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