A tin bank, model voting machine, coloring book, and board game are included in the House Collection. While some are toys meant for children and others are aids for lifelong learners, all have congressional themes. In addition to their primary use, they also communicate the importance of civic engagement and the functions of Congress.
One artifact in the House Collection connects a toy with Congress and the budget. Alluding to Congress’s “power of the purse”—taxing and setting the fiscal policy of the government—the small scuffed bank bears an image of the Capitol and lets savers set money aside for four different expenses.
The battered red bank was produced around 1940. On top, the central motif of the Capitol is surrounded by a red, white, and blue flag pattern. Unlike a piggy bank with just one slot, budget banks like these gave thrifty children and adults the ability to save their pocket change in four different sections.
Four slots and two holes at the top for coins and rolled-up dollar bills correspond with four interior compartments. Savers could label each compartment and determine how much money to contribute. Children might have imagined that what Congress does with the federal budget is similar to what they did with their pennies.
“The curtain shut behind her and she was left alone in the strange world of party levers, referendums, crazy little knobs, an immense slate of candidates, and a one-minute time limit to decide the fate of the country,” a 1964 Chicago Tribune article described the nerves that a voter might feel at the prospect of using an unfamiliar voting machine.
In the early 20th century, machines began to replace paper ballots. Although there were similarities between the design of printed ballots and the gear-and-lever systems that replaced them, some voters still needed guidance. To teach them how to use the machines, officials provided little tabletop models to familiarize the public with the mechanics of voting.
Although this is not a child’s toy, its petite size, dainty curved levers, and bright aquamarine color makes it seem cheerful and playful.
Across the country, demonstration models—both miniature and full-sized—popped up at polling places, schools, banks, city halls, and libraries so that voters could practice “decid[ing] the fate of the country” before they pulled the lever.
With simple line drawings, this 1960 coloring book tells the story of a young boy learning about the power of voting. Ohio Representative William H. Ayres distributed this coloring book to teach the importance of elections—and to remind constituents to vote for him.
Bobby Brown lives in a house with his parents, big sister Sally, and dog Spottie. One day, when his parents leave early in the morning, Bobby learns that they are going to vote. He asks his sister about casting a ballot and whether he can take part too. “All grown-up Americans should vote, because by voting they choose the men and women who make the laws for us,” Sally replies.
Inspired by Bobby’s interest in civics, the family takes a vacation to Washington, DC. In the capital, the family sees the sights, including the Washington Monument, White House, and Lincoln Memorial. But before they go anywhere else, they visit the Capitol, which the coloring book explains is “exactly what every good American should do first.”
At the end of the story, Bobby and his family meet their Congressman, who suggests that the civic-minded boy might one day return to Washington as a Representative.
In addition to coloring in the Capitol, children could learn about Congress through a colorful board game. Milton Bradley released Lobby: A Capital Game in 1949.
“Imagine yourself as a Senator or Representative from your district having a Bill that you wish to put through Congress,” the instruction booklet reads, “then open up the Game Board and see the many steps that a Bill may have to follow in order to become a law.”
To learn how a bill becomes a law, players follow a brightly colored, snaking path from the House or Senate Chamber to the President signing it into law. Stops along the way might include committee hearings, failure to reach quorum, a pocket veto, or a conference committee report—depending on a roll of the dice.
From banks to board games, Congress appears in a variety of teaching tools. Beneath their fun graphics, little knobs, and color-in Capitols, these objects communicate the importance of civic engagement and the functions of the House.
Sources: Boston Globe, 1 November 1953; Chicago Tribune, 29 October 1964; Indianapolis Star, 7 October 1920; New York Times, 7 September 1964; Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1967; “Voting and Electioneering, 1789–1899,” National Museum of American History, accessed 15 March 2021, https://americanhistory.si.edu/democracy-exhibition/machinery-democracy/voting-and-electioneering-1789–1899.Follow @USHouseHistory