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George Clark: A Badge of Honor

August 23, 2023

Collectors of political Americana, specifically buttons, badges, ribbons, ephemera and memorabilia used to promote presidential candidates, look to one man for setting the highest bar: George Clark, Jr.   Clark created what is arguably the most substantial and handsome campaign badge ever, a coveted artifact of the mid 19th century that remains in exceptional demand: his ambrotypes of 1860.

Material culture manufactured to publicize and market those running for president date to our earliest campaigns. While elements predate the 1840 contest, it is that election that gave birth to widespread memorabilia being manufactured.  Lapel devices and ribbons supporting the candidacy of William Henry Harrison as well as those in support his opponent Martin Van Buren remain extant in huge numbers. This speaks to the popularity of such trinkets at the time they were made and the fact they were treasured and collected ever since. Clever, sarcastic, humorous, biting, often poignant, such devices adorned the lapels of Americans in sport – the political contest.  And those created and sold by George Clark enjoy one specific description: elegant!

George Clark’s studio, a street scene from 1858.

George Clark, Jr. (1823-1895) was born in Boston and detailed in the Directory of Massachusetts Photographers as having photo studios as early as 1853. He is officially detailed as a daguerreotypist in 1859. As shown in this 1858 photo of his gallery in what was called Scollay Square (the area in downtown Boston hubbed by the intersections of Cambridge and Court Streets), he was also an ambrotypist offering portrait sittings for a reasonable 25-cents, what would be about $10 today! In 1860 he no doubt saw an opportunity to make some money on the side: selling “badges” of all those running for president and vice president, what was a sizable field of candidates that year totaling four standard-bearers and four running-mates.

The standard “Brady” portrait, copied from the Buttre engraving.
An ambrotype copy image of a “from life” salt print photograph.
An ambrotype portrait of a young man, ca. 1859, made by Clark with his address and label card on verso.

George Clark was a true patriot, and when his country called, he answered. His home was in Dorchester and he enlisted June 13, 1861 as a Colonel in the newly mustered Massachusetts 11th Infantry, known as the “Boston Volunteers.” Clark, 37, had served for several years in the State Militia and is credited with forming the 11th, recruiting eight companies at 179 Court Street, right next to his studio. He was injured at First Bull Run, July 21, 1861 and would be discharged from the army due to disability on October 11, 1861. He returned home to Dorchester. Little is documented about his life thence on but he never reopened a photography studio. One must assume the toxic chemicals used at the time were too problematic given his compromised health. We know he ran a dry-goods business in his city. He and his wife Sarah had a total of seven children, two born after his military service, five living into their adulthood. 

The only personality of note Clark also fashioned into one of his jewelry ambros was a portrait of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward.  In 1860 the 18-year-old was sent by his mother, Queen Victoria, on a goodwill trip to North America.  His tour in the States was a huge sensation with receptions, balls, celebratory spectacles in his honor at each city he toured. He visited with then President James Buchanan at the White House, staying three days and the two touring Mount Vernon together. The overall visit which included Canada lasted four months (July 10th through November 15th) and was considered a huge success in creating bonds between the Royals and their former subjects.  It coincided with the U. S. Presidential campaign.

Census of Extant Clark Specimens Known

Abraham Lincoln: Approx. Thirty (30+/-).
Hannibal Hamlin: None known.

Stephen Douglas: Four (4) in two different poses.
Herschel Johnson: None known.

 John Breckinridge: None known.
Joseph Lane: None known.

John Bell: Three (3).
Edward Everett: One (1).

A cased ninth-plate ambrotype of presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge, reflecting the popularity of the format.

It is hard for us to imagine as lovely a political as the George Clark ambro adorning someone’s chest in support of Ike, Hoover, Clinton, etc. These cherished jewels of 1860 remain standouts from our electoral past.  –Jonathan Mann