Elections often occupy people’s minds. For Carl Krasik, elections occupy boxes. Over the past 45 years, Krasik has amassed over 4,000 items of political memorabilia. Although each ribbon, poster, button and token was neatly stored away, this past May, Krasik and his wife, Elaine, gifted the collection to the Heinz History Center.
Krasik explained that about a year ago, he and his wife discussed what to do with the entirety.
“There was nobody in the family who was interested in picking it up,” said Krasik.
He remembered that a few years prior, the History Center had held an exhibit about Pennsylvania in the Civil War. Krasik had lent the museum a few items for display.
“Through that I got to know people at the History Center, and I got an enormous amount of respect for the job they are doing there.”
So with no takers among family, Krasik contacted the History Center again and asked whether they were interested in his collection.
Several representatives of the History Center traveled to Krasik’s house to inspect the items. The History Center expressed interest in the collection, and the parties began finalizing the gift. Now that the donation is complete, Krasik is helping the History Center integrate and catalogue the contents.
“They’re doing a fantastic job creating data sheets and pictures of the items,” said Krasik. “I’m adding two to four sentences to each description on the
historic significance of each item. I’m just extraordinarily impressed by what the History Center is doing with the collection.”
The nearly 4,000 items in Krasik’s collection include political buttons, ribbons, posters, books, paper items, pamphlets and tokens (metal coins with small holes for placing a ribbon through). Most of the items have a Pennsylvania connection. The oldest item dates from 1790 and is a newspaper reporting the results of the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. The most recent items are from the 2014 gubernatorial contest between Tom Wolf and Tom Corbett.
Krasik’s collection tells a story of political history. He said that during the 1790s campaigning was unlike today.
“In those days they didn’t really have campaigning as we think of it today; that really begins to take off in the 1820s,” he said.
And like current political contests, those of the 19th century featured plenty unpleasantness.
“If we think that political campaigns are nasty today, we don’t really have a monopoly on nastiness,” said Krasik. One item in his collection is a poster from the 1869 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. The poster has two drawings: On the left side is a picture of John White Geary being told that his son, Edward, had just been killed during battle in the Civil War. According to Krasik, Geary, a Union general, in effect responds, “Too bad, I’m in the middle of a war, don’t bother me.” To contrast Geary’s resolve the right side of the poster portrays political challenger Asa Packer. Intended to appear weaker than Geary, Packer is depicted sitting in Paris seemingly distanced from contemporary issues.
More disturbing than the poster, Krasik said that in the years following the Civil War, racism adorned much of the political memorabilia.
“There is nothing subtle about these items. They are clearly going for a racist platform,” he said.
One item that Krasik mentioned was an 1866 democratic campaign ribbon stating, “The White Man’s Candidate.”
“You don’t get any more overt than that,” Krasik said. “It’s an unfortunate part of our history, but it’s a part of our history.”
With so much history in Krasik’s collection, the History Center is ecstatic about the acquisition.
Anne Madarasz, Museum Division director and director of the Western Pa. Sports Museum at the Sen. John Heinz History Center, explained that Krasik’s collection immediately impacts the museum, both because of the contents and the collector.
“For us it’s got two things that make it special: One, this is the kind of material that we do not have, it’s a measurable collection, so right away we go from almost nothing to a really spectacular collection that documents politics both within the region and the state; two, it also comes with Carl who is an expert. So we get the benefit of a collection and a scholar.”
Krasik claims that his knowledge of political memorabilia began in 1968.
“It was a very active political year, so I was interested and I started buying a few things.”
“Then later when I was working for Judge Cohen, he was the one who refocused my interest toward Pennsylvania.”
Krasik explained that Justice Herbert Cohen of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had been a New Deal Democrat in the 1930s.
“He knew personally a lot of the politicians whether Republican or Democrat in Pennsylvania through an awful lot of the 20th century. He got me interested in focusing on Pennsylvania, particularly Pennsylvanian governors and senators, so for the better part of 45 years I collected Pennsylvanian items with a focus on governors and senators,” he said
Throughout the decades, Krasik added to the collection in various fashions. During the 1970s and 1980s, he traveled the country attending trade shows. Krasik said that dealers would man tables in a hotel ballroom, while buyers walked around inspecting and purchasing items.
“You had to do a lot of research to know what you were looking at. Some of these could get a little obscure so you need to have a little history,” he said
During other years, he purchased items through catalog auctions in the mail. More recently, Krasik has relied upon eBay and private sales.
The diversity of Krasik’s collection represents not only a multitude of past candidates, but also a host of contemporary issues.
“One of the things that struck me when we looked at it is how each of these things is a part and parcel of the time — the material, the language that is used, they are great pieces to see what was important to people,” said Madarasz.
“There are great individual things in there, but each piece is really a little story unto itself, whether it is the language, the imagery, that gives a sense of what was important to people and what were the major issues of the time to the people in our state, region and nation.”
And after four decades of careful collecting, Krasik has no regrets regarding his recent gift.
“It was a lifetime of collecting, but I think that what serious collectors think about is that we don’t own the history, we are just caretakers of the history; it is under our care for some time, and then it moves on to someone else. I thought that the History Center would be a great caretaker of this. It will not age, it will be there forever.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.