The 19th century was a time of raucous high voter turnout in America, and the youth vote was no exception. Back in the day, the next generation was inaugurated into the political process less with discussions about foreign policy and student loan debt, more with capes, parades, and fire.

The Smithsonian Insider chatted briefly with Jon Grinspan, a curator at the National Museum of American History who specializes in youth in 19th and early 20th century politics, and he talked a bit about how children have been included in the political process over the centuries.

Advertisement

In the 19th century, a man’s first vote was a huge event, a rite of passage. But Grinspan explained the moment was really the culmination of a lifetime of experiences with their parents’ politics:

Political involvement might begin at birth, when parents named their children after prominent politicians. Or, youngsters would join their fathers in saloons for late-night discussion of politics. Children were even known to throw rocks at children whose families belonged to an opposing political party.

It wasn’t just a matter of at-home training, either. There were also the public spectacles.

But how do you get a 12-year-old interested in politics? Well, fire doesn’t hurt.

Imagine the spectacle: thousands of people marching down the street for a cause, the women dressed as goddesses, the young men in uniforms, including capes—one of which is now in the American History Museum’s collection. Alcohol flowed freely. And fires raged, as did the spirit of democracy in small rural towns, for whom this was “the Super Bowl and the Oscars and everything pop culture has to offer,” Grinspan says.

Issues weren’t always at the forefront of these events, he adds. In fact, some participants might get the issues totally wrong (!), but they knew what party they were there to support.

Guess there’s a reason they’re called political parties.