PEORIA, Ill. (AP) – You expect to see Abraham Lincoln on plaques, book covers, even postcards. Less so on bobble heads, cologne containers or bottles of wine.
Nevertheless, there sits Honest Abe’s image on a host of unlikely items on display at the Metamora Courthouse State Historic Site set to through March.
The rotating exhibit with the mouthful of a title – “Lincoln’s Image, Commanding, Comical and Kitsch: From the Utilitarian and Collectible to the Common and Cheesy” – tries to shed some light on the myriad ways the Civil War-era commander in chief still has a hold on the American imagination.
It includes hand-carved items, from a small wooden sculpture of Lincoln and one of his sons reading to a profile view of the man carved into a walnut shell by a prisoner in a state penitentiary, but also features examples of how he’s been used to sell a product.
“This is the height of commercialism, I think – Lincoln bandages,” the historic site’s caretaker, Jean Myers, said while pointing at the container holding them.
Most of the items are on short-term loan to the courthouse from collectors around the area, and without their aid, “we wouldn’t be able to do this,” Myers said.
That Lincoln appears on such wide and varied products isn’t a surprise, said Bradley University sociology professor Jackie Hogan. The author of “Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America” says that “many of our representations of Lincoln are like a Rorschach test… We can sort of make him into anything we want. He reflects the values, the beliefs, the priorities of people who use his image.”
In fact, she said, groups as diverse as Republicans and Democrats, communists and capitalists, and civil rights leaders and members of the Ku Klux Klan have appropriated his image at different times.
“This is just some person’s concept of what they would like Lincoln to look like,” Myers said of each item in the display.
But what’s the appeal after all these years?
“Consuming Lincoln is consuming Americanness,” Hogan said. “He has become one of the ultimate symbols of all American values and virtues.”
So when he’s used to hawk car insurance or appears on a commemorative plate, we’re venerating him for seeing the nation through one of its darkest hours and celebrating him as the epitome of the American Dream, “the rise from frontier poverty to the highest office in the land.”
“We as a nation love those stories, the rags-to-riches stories,” Hogan said.
And he’s held in such esteem that whatever we do to him – “the wine is particularly funny because he was a teetotaler; he didn’t drink,” Hogan said – it won’t hurt the image of the man considered the nation’s greatest president.
“We can play with his image, making it into a vampire hunter or whatever, because… he is absolutely secure. There is nothing we can do to his image that would destroy it,” Hogan said.
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