Parade Kepi with Torch from the 1880 Presidential Election

By Peggy Derrick

The presidential election season is heating up as we approach the national nominating conventions. Giant political rallies follow the candidates across the country, as they work the campaign trail. It would be easy to think this election is unusually intense, but Americans have always been passionate about their presidential elections, even if the means by which we show our partisanship have changed.

This cap, known as a kepi, was designed to be worn at a nighttime political rally. The small oil lamp on its top would have been one of many illuminating the night, and a large parade of these must have been an exciting, dramatic sight. Torches had long been used in political parades, and the kepi was a creative – if dangerous – innovation.  Kepis developed from similar but larger torches carried on staffs, with a fuel receptacle balanced on gimbals, helping it remain level and not tip. The first notable American use of night-time parades was in the campaign of the so-called Wide Awakes: groups of young men who, in 1860, organized themselves into small armies in black capes and kepis. The Wide Awakes filled dark city streets with the glow of their torches as they campaigned for their candidate, Abraham Lincoln. From New England through the Midwest, these groups organized and marched, galvanizing support for Lincoln.  

Throughout the rest of the 19th century, torch-lit parades were popular, and at some point the torches migrated to the tops of caps. This kepi most likely dates from the 1880 presidential election, when kepis with torches reached the height of their popularity. Garfield, who only won the popular vote by less than 2,000, did carry La Crosse and the rest of Wisconsin.

Parading about with a burning container of lamp oil on top of your head seems foolhardy and downright stupid to the modern eye. What if you moved too fast, or the swivel got stuck? Perhaps the risk of self-immolation added to the zeal of the marchers and the excitement of watchers?  In any case, lamp oil went out of use and with it went these parade kepis. Now we express ourselves in bumper stickers and Facebook postings, which at least aren’t going to leave us looking like a dumpster fire with singed eyebrows.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.