Third in our occasional series of “Schwamb Shares.”
One just didn’t expect to see President Warren Gamaliel Harding in the Old Schwamb Mill.
But, there he was, all 40 inches by 47 inches of him in a larger-than-life painted image on cloth, rolled up and stuck in one of the wood moulding racks on the second floor. Given his perennial ranking as one of America’s worst presidents, perhaps Harding might warrant an even more obscure storage space, but as an artifact of the early twentieth century, the object is one of the Mill’s prized collection items.
Produced by Arlington Heights artist Henry W. Berthrong (1844-1928), the eye-catching image no doubt originally featured on the end of a large barn, the side of a roadside shed, or possibly even the Mill itself. It would almost certainly have been produced for the 1920 presidential contest between Republican Warren G. Harding and Democrat James M. Cox (Harding won Massachusetts and the election in a landslide). Before CNN campaign ads or even highway billboards, large campaign posters placed candidates’ faces before the voters. Berthrong specialized in such large-scale political advertising, sending his portraits across the country. In 1892, Boston reporters visited Berthrong at work on a gigantic Benjamin Harrison poster, so big at 20 feet x 15 feet that it was completed outside on Berthrong’s Arlington Heights barn.
Born in 1844, in Mumford, New York, Berthrong served in the Grand Army of the Republic for nearly four years in the 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac, taking part in many battles. Sketching the White House on leave, Berthrong’s artistic ability was once noticed favorably by Abraham Lincoln, but Berthrong’s other talents brought him more lasting Washington, D.C., fame. He had a noted career as one of the very first professional baseball players with the Washington Nationals. Playing center field and catcher without gloves, helmets and chest protectors, he eventually broke every finger in both hands. Berthrong was the idol of American youngsters and a celebrity. An unparalleled sprinter, he held the base-running record for some 40 years and was never beaten in twenty-six one-hundred-yard dashes. He also gained fame rowing with the championship Potomac Four in 1869.
Marrying the niece of the Secretary of the Treasury in 1873, he began a career in the United States custom service that was to last over fifty years and took him to Florida, Nevada, Boston and, for several years, to Cuba. The Boston posting was the longest and allowed the Berthrongs to move to Arlington Heights in 1875.
Active in local community affairs, Berthrong was a Mason and an officer in veteran’s organizations, playing first violin with the orchestra of Arlington’s Francis Gould Post, No. 36, of the Grand Army of the Republic as well. One son was a noted athlete for Arlington High.
The Harding banner appears as late as 1969 in the Mill’s photo collection. The best photo, part of a series that the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust produced as it sought to save the Mill, shows the Harding banner behind owner Elmer Schwamb as he points to a mirror in a black walnut frame with gold leaf liner. The description from 1969 reads, “Behind Mr. Schwamb is a campaign poster portrait of Warren G. Harding, used for years as a dust screen for the small gold leafing room beyond.”
How the Schwambs acquired the Warren Harding banner portrait is not documented. Letters in the Mill’s collection, newspaper articles from the period, and even the corporation’s board minutes suggest that the Clinton W. Schwambs (husband and wife) were active Republicans with a perspective common among business owners of the day. Clinton Schwamb wrote an approving letter to Governor Calvin Coolidge (Harding’s running mate) on his handling of the Boston Police Strike. Oral history and photographs record that the Schwambs of the period sometimes hung banners and bunting on the property in connection with town celebrations, the return of veterans, and the business itself.
While neither the sketch nor the president are Mt. Rushmore material, perhaps the large Harding likeness gave Schwamb workers their own special view of American politics, up close and personal.
Doreen Stevens, Board of Directors, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.
This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!