It may have come to your attention that it’s an election year in the USA. There’s plenty of pictures of the candidates shooting hoops or jogging, but thus far neither have claimed any artisan skills. Things were different during the election campaign of 1872, however.
In that year, the incumbent Republican president and hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant, fought off a challenge by the Liberal Republican, Horace Greeley. Grant’s re-election was by no means assured, because the Republican party had split and a significant minority supported Greeley against Grant.
Grant and his running mate, Senator Henry Wilson, had to broaden their appeal and reinvigorate support for the president in the face of a growing corruption scandal that tainted his regime. In a move that many politicians before and since have used shamelessly, they emphasised their roots among the working people.
Both Grant and Wilson had links to the shoe trade and leather industry, but in Grant’s case, it was certainly not his primary career. His father was a prosperous tanner, but from an early age, Grant hated the hard, stinking work. His civilian life before the Civil War was one of false starts and ill-starred ventures as he struggled to do almost anything other than work in the family trade. He finally achieved success when he left it behind to lead Union troops during the Civil War.
Wilson began his working life as a shoemaker and ran a successful factory at the same time as serving in the Massachusetts State Legislature. His shop in Natick, Massachusetts survives today as a protected historic building.
This poster shows the ‘Galena Tanner and the Natick Shoemaker’ pictured in front of a tannery and Wilson’s work bench. Both men exude an air of reassuring competence in their roles as honest craftsmen, an image cleverly posed to draw attention away from the whiff of corruption that hovered over the Federal government.
Grant and Wilson went on to win the election, although it is not absolutely clear whether their links with the leather trade helped to swing the vote.