Election Day, back in the day

Historians recall the old traditions of partying for party

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 2, 2016

 The turn of the 20th century was the beginning of printed political materials that were mailed to homes, eliminating the need for public gatherings during elections.

The turn of the 20th century was the beginning of printed political materials that were mailed to homes, eliminating the need for public gatherings during elections.


METRO DETROIT — With just a few days until the presidential election, many of us are ready to be done with what’s been referred to as the most contentious race in our nation’s history.

And plenty of others are just ready to drown out the hysteria with a strong cocktail. 

But looking back in history, it turns out this election isn’t all that different from other votes in the past — booze included.

That’s according to Liette Gidlow, associate professor of history at Wayne State University. She said that in the 18th and 19th centuries, voting was as much a social affair as it was a civic one.

“Elections were really public festivals. People had the day off work, gathered in public places, and it was a festival atmosphere,” Gidlow explained. “There might be public entertainment. There might be magic tricks, vaudeville acts, treats for sale and street food.”

Alcohol was an integral part of the celebration too. 

“Nineteenth-century elections were lubricated by alcohol, which was provided by the party to turn voters out to vote. Elections were pretty festive events, but not always thought of as terribly respectable,” Gidlow added.

In the article “Putting the Party Back into Politics: An Experiment Testing Whether Election Day Festivals Increase Voter Turnout,” published by the American Political Science Association, authors Elizabeth Addonizio, Donald P. Green and James M. Glaser describe elections as events that would draw people from miles and miles away to toast democracy with free shots of whiskey, live music and general revelry.

Bon Appetit magazine recently shared the recipe for election cake, also known as muster cake for its ability to help “muster” votes. 

After the American Revolution, women reportedly brought cake to voting cites to treat voters to a sweet treat packed with cinnamon, cloves, tons of sugar and plenty of spirits, like brandy and wine.

Bakers around the country have tried recreating the recipe this cycle, boasting of their efforts on Twitter with the hashtag #MakeAmericaCakeAgain.

The party had to end sometime, though, and by the turn of the 20th century, politicians began mailing campaign literature to people’s homes, so there was no need to congregate in city centers to learn and discuss the issues. 

“Pamphlets replaced public gatherings, and then in the ’50s (campaign) advertisements came to homes on televisions,” Gidlow said.

From that point on, elections began to morph into what we’re used to today. And even many of the talking points from politicians have stayed the same over time, according to Melodie Nichols, curator of the Clawson Historical Museum.

“Other important issues were getting a clean water system, fire department, annexing additional land and other issues that created a safe, progressive community. Later, in the 1960s, the biggest issue was, not surprisingly, urban renewal and school desegeregation and busing,” Nichols said of older Clawson ballots.

And while political pundits say that elections are nastier than ever in these modern times, Gidlow said that’s just not the case.

“The institutions of our elections are the same: the Electoral College, the process of how people cast their votes has changed, but much of it is the same. How we get the results has changed, since there used to be Return Day with public gatherings to hear the results of the election, since people couldn’t get them immediately on television like we do now,” she said. “But one thing that survived is the contentiousness and commitment of people for their party of choice.”