March 1, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
Growing up, our house was filled with presidents and almost presidents. WIN WITH WILLKIE! blared a sign on our front door. Wilson, having “kept us out of war,” looked down benevolently as you mounted the stairs. At the top, you might be confronted with a Nixon caricature and a poster for Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose ticket. And that’s to say nothing of the large case of assorted campaign buttons in the living room, or the cedar closet that had been completely given over to posters, terrifying rubber LBJ and Reagan masks, and other such ephemera.
We didn’t think to question it any more than we would’ve questioned why there were two large antique baby carriages in the dining room or a 1920s wringer washer in the corner of the living room or an enormous bust of JFK on the mantel. Any more than we questioned the “Presidents of the United States” place mats that prompted nightly quizzes, or the bits of trivia and mnemonic devices our dad would impart at the dinner table: Pierce’s son’s head was pierced by a telegraph pole, so his wife was in perpetual mourning; Buchanan ate too many iced cherries on the eve of his inauguration, so diarrhea shot out of him like a cannon and they had to mount privies along the route.
The items of most interest to me were a set of plastic presidents, each about four inches tall. (I know they weren’t chalkware because I once made an illicit scrawl with Martin Van Buren on the edge of a chair and nothing happened.) My dad had a lot of presidents, although I don’t think all of them, and some were definitely in better shape than others; William Henry Harrison was particularly crummy-looking. (Their names were written on their pedestals in case you aren’t able to identify, say, Zachary Taylor or Millard Fillmore at a glance.)
My dad’s figurines were doubtless made by Louis Marx and Company, a legend among hobbyists and collectors. (The presidents, presumably, were less popular with children than the model cars and trains—unless the child was my dad.) The figurines were first produced in the Eisenhower administration (Marx and Ike were pals) and continued through 1968. That election year, in fact, saw some of the most collectible Marx “presidents” of them all, including Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan.
You can get a display for them that mounts all the figurines on a sort of set of stairs. We didn’t have that; you’d just open a drawer and find Chester A. Arthur, or discover Harding in the medicine cabinet. You could say we really lived with them. But they weren’t very good to play with. Even in our imaginative games—when FDR had to sub in for the father of the bride in a wedding, or when Grover Cleveland got stuck in the cab of a toy truck—they were always too dignified, in their suits and powdered wigs and unbending austerity. They didn’t really lower themselves to cheap pantomime. And when you’re a child, that’s a problem.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.