Waving the Stars and Stripes for Stephen Douglas

8/30/2022 cbw

It’s always fun when we get to display something that has never been seen before at the ALPLM. It’s especially thrilling to show off something as rare as this flag-themed campaign banner for Illinois politician Stephen A. Douglas.

Douglas is best remembered today as Abraham Lincoln’s political rival and ultimately a loser in the 1860 presidential race. But as a U.S. senator, Douglas was an important national figure when Lincoln was still largely unknown outside Illinois. He was the unofficial leader of the Democratic Party in the 1850s.

Stephen A. Douglas around 1858. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The number of stars on this banner suggests it was made some time from 1850 to 1858. Perhaps it was used in his 1858 Senate race against Lincoln or maybe a supporter made it with some future presidential race in mind.

The banner was a gift to the ALPLM in 2009 from the Stephen A. Douglas Chapter of the Order of DeMolay, an international fraternal organization for young men ages 12 to 21. It was in rough shape when we received it. Our conservation staff vacuumed the banner, removing surface dirt and mold residue. (What is left are thread-like mold stains).

What appears to be blue-black thread is actually mold damage. (ALPLM)

Before the delicate artifact could be displayed, the ALPLM exhibits and conservation teams had to figure out how to do it without damaging the delicate fabric. They finally settled on an innovative system of magnets. Pairs of magnets on the front and back of the display board would hold the banner in place with a minimum of stress on the fabric. After some experimentation, they were able to match the color of the front magnets to the colors on the fabric, making the display system virtually invisible.

An example of the magnets placed on the front and back of the display. (ALPLM)

Installing the banner in the museum involved carefully unrolling it, putting the magnets around its edges, maneuvering it into a display case, and adjusting light levels to minimize damage to the fabric. The teams responsible for that delicate work included registrar Carla Smith, conservator Bonnie Parr, exhibit designers Tom Conway and Shannon Murphy, library associate Ginny Lee, and intern Gabby Antonacci.

Each step was planned in advance so there would be no last-second confusion. (ALPLM)

The banner will be displayed for a year in the part of the museum dedicated to exploring Abraham Lincoln’s life before he became president. As Lincoln Historian Christian McWhirter notes, the banner is a reminder that Douglas once stood at the top of the political hill but fell hard when his efforts to find a slavery compromise divided the nation further. “The dark consequences of Douglas’s policies set the stage for his failed presidential bid against Lincoln.”

The banner in its display case, where a reflection from an exhibit showing the Lincoln-Douglas debates can be seen. (ALPLM)

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