Monday, February 11, 2013

U.S. Presidential Memorabilia

Memorabilia  of United States Presidents from the collections of local historian and collector Larry Fuhro are on display at the Berkeley Heights Public Library through February, 2013 in the upstairs lobby.

Celebrating the Month of Presidents, the display features glass and ceramic figurines, commemorative plates, broadsides and labels with fun presidential facts. We asked Mr. Fuhro to tell us about his collection:
Toby Pitcher of Herbert Hoover (left) from the Patriotic Products Company Gold Medal China 1928
BH: When and why did you begin collecting presidential memorabilia?
LF:  I really don't know why, but around age fifteen I developed an intense interest in history and collecting. I started a museum in my father's garage and charged ten cents admission. That would have been the late 1950's. There was no room in the garage then for my father's car because the museum was in it, but he supported my collecting interests and drove me around to the estate sales. I did yard work to finance my hobby.
BH: What are some of your favorite pieces in the library display?
LF: Glassware. It's splashy. Everyone likes that.
BH: I was drawn to that, especially the glass log cabin that held syrup. I remember people putting those on window sills to let the light shine through.
LH: Yes, that's a 'product premium' from the 1930's. People wanted a mug or a plate, something to feel a connection to the president.
BH: I think now people would buy something their kids saw advertised, say a muppet figure that comes with a fast food meal, but not a presidential plate. The Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial plate with the cobalt blue border and gold design struck me as very ornate and expensive. I don't know anyone who has that sort of thing nowadays. It is in contrast to the bobble-head figurine of President Obama which is kind of jokey and toy-like.

LH: Yes, that FDR plate was very expensive at the time, $25.00 in 1945. There was a different feeling [in the early to mid-twentieth century] towards the presidency. More respectful or reverential. Now, modern figurines tend to be caricatures, sarcastic put-downs. The last non-controversial president was probably Eisenhower, 'the grandfather in the White House.'

Syrup jugs, white to the left, clear on the right bottom

BH: I did notice another plate especially, the lithographed tin plate of the 1908 election of William Howard Taft and James Sherman. It's very ornate and didn't look like tin to me.
LH: Yes, tin coffee boxes and food containers were very common at the time.
BH: Where did they sell these memorabilia? How did people get them?
LH: Up until 1929, door to door salesmen with catalogs of presidential memorabilia sold the types of items you see in my collection. People seemed to want a talisman of the office of the presidency. When President Garfield was assassinated in 1881, there was a national outpouring of grief. Lots of memorial pieces were sold. This was not so much the case with the death of President Kennedy. People's attitudes toward the presidency were already changing.
BH: I know lots of people kept the newspaper or Life Magazine from the day or week of Kennedy's assasination, but I don't recall the collectible fervor that you describe.
LF: No, there wasn't and I can tell you as a collector that the newspapers from those historical events like Kennedy's assasination are very common and not very valuable as a result.
BH: Which presidents are the easiest to find memorabilia  for?
LH: Taft, of all twentieth century presidents, is easiest to find. He is know for his girth, a topic in the news lately concerning New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Taft weighed between 330 to 350 pounds and famously had a large bathtub installed in the White House to accommodate his size.
BH: Tell us about your caricatures of the presidents which are in the display.
LF: I used to be a graphic designer before my teaching career. I wanted to make a book of caricatures of all the presidents, but I'm missing about eight.
BH: Who is missing?
LF: Some presidents are hard to caricaturize, like Eisenhower and FDR. I haven't done the presidents that I find are difficult to capture the likeness.
BH: Who is the easiest?
LF: Lincoln, make him taller, make his hat taller.
BH: I think you should go for it and finish that book.

Display Cases with Presidential Memorabilia

President Obama figurine and framed invitation to the 2009 Inaugural Ball
BH: I bet your students loved these caricatures and this collection.
LH: I did use these items to teach. Touching a real object makes history real to young students. They love 'hands on' learning. I can't picture kids today collecting bubblegum cards of presidents which I collected in the 1950's, but they do enjoy seeing these pieces of history.

Memorial Plate of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945
 BH: Thank you for displaying this remarkable collection at the library. I really think people are enjoying looking at it when they come in. All these items seem to recall some interest in the presidency that we don't have anymore as a nation. What do you think?
LH: People talk about the divisive nature of politics now. These items in the display demonstrate that there was a simpler time with a different feeling about the White House and the Presidency which now we have lost.

From a transcript of a telephone interview with the collector, Larry Fuhro, February 7, 2013. Any errors are mine (blogger Anne)

To begin to study collectibles, browse The Kovels' antiques & collectibles price list / by Ralph and Terry Kovel 745.1 Kov and similar titles shelved in the area behind the Circulation Desk in the 700's Room at the Berkeley Heights Public Library.
Or take a look at
Collecting political memorabilia / Richard Friz  324.973 FRI pbk

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