A palm card is possibly the simplest piece of congressional campaign literature: a single piece of cardstock containing information about a candidate. In scores of congressional races from 1900 to 1960, palm cards were also the smallest pieces of literature in a campaign’s toolbox. Just three inches tall, they fit in the palm of your hand, and were “large enough not to get lost in a lady’s purse,” as one vendor put it, “but still the perfect size for a gentlemen’s pocket.” Palm cards were direct descendants of business cards, calling cards, and cartes-de-visite. Candidates often gave out palm cards as an introduction to their candidacy, and the diminutive dimensions required disciplined messaging. A survey of more than 100 cards in the House Collection shows common elements that candidates used repeatedly.
Explore some of the hallmarks of congressional palm cards through these examples from the House Collection.
Where is the most important information on a little card? In the early 1900s, it was on the front, because the back was usually blank, a custom borrowed from business cards as well as posters and handbills. Gale Stalker of New York was not ready to give up the tradition of printing on one side, but he packed in plenty of details on his 1922 card, just the same. The conscientious constituent who received the card jotted down one of Stalker’s talking points—his commitment to bringing business to the region—on the back.
A studio photograph was almost universal in congressional palm cards. Katherine Langley used the convention to great effect in 1926. Instead of the typically small picture in one corner of the card, Kentuckian Langley gave herself the entire surface by simply rotating its orientation. The card then looked more like a traditional carte-de-visite than an advertisement. Her grave face reminded voters that Langley was a loyal, responsible matron, the wife of former Representative John Langley. She was running a “vindication campaign” following what the Langleys always maintained was his unjust conviction of violating Prohibition laws. From prison, Mr. Langley asked voters to “send my wife, the mother of our three children, to Washington” because “she knows better than anyone else my unfinished plans.”
Californian Marion De Vries, whose 1898 palm card is the earliest in the House Collection, printed just the basics on one side of a 2" by 4" piece of cardstock: his name, photo, the office he was running for, the impressive number of political parties endorsing him, and when to vote. Telling constituents when to vote was the third most common piece of information found on the House Collection’s palm cards, after names and photos. Versions were printed for primary elections, special elections, and others, like this one, for the general election in November.
Palm cards grew more elaborate, with platform planks and accomplishments. Kansan Errett Scrivner decided to forego explaining nuanced policy positions on his little card. Painting with a broad brush, he announced that he was for “honesty and economy” and against “communism” and “reds in U.S. jobs.” Scrivner took an added step in constituent cultivation by printing new state license plate codes on the back.
At the dawn of a legendary American political career, this little piece of cardstock emerged in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first run for office. The front is standard fare—LBJ’s name and face—but the back is a rarity. It is one of the few cards that names the candidate’s opponents and shows exactly how to fill out a ballot. Johnson was running in a crowded field during the 1937 special election. Texas voters could take this card to the polls as a handy aid to remind them of everyone they didn’t want to vote for.
The House Collection has more than 100 palm cards. Only three do not include the candidate’s photograph, and only one encourages voters to cross party lines: this 1956 card from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In addition to pitching himself to voters who already knew him well, the longtime Democratic Representative used this little card to endorse the re-election of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. His influence was apparent: Eisenhower’s support from Black voters in Powell’s Harlem district in New York doubled.
Each candidate might be a little bit different, but they all needed to communicate the reason a constituent should vote for them. Palm cards distilled and emphasized their message—the who, what, where, and when of a congressional campaign.
Sources: Robert Caro, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Baines Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1992); Harrold E. Gillingham, “Old Business Cards of Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 53, No. 3, 1929; Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993); A. Hyatt Mayor, “Old Calling Cards,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1943.Follow @USHouseHistory