In the election of 1928, New York governor Alfred E. Smith was the Democratic candidate for President. Born in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1873, Al Smith was a self-made man. He dropped out of parochial school when he was 14 so he could earn money to help support the family. He worked at the Fulton Fish Market, among other places, until he moved into local politics under the Tammany Hall machine in his early 20s. Smith’s immigrant heritage — his grandparents were first generation Irish, Italian, German and Anglo-Irish — and his working class urban upbringing appealed to a whole new demographic of voters who identified with him. Many workers in big cities went to the polls for the first time to cast their vote for Al Smith.
That wasn’t yet a big enough to group to secure him the necessary votes. He lost to Republican Herbert Hoover in a landslide, winning only Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the Northeast, none of the Midwestern or Western states, and splitting the traditionally Democratic Southern states (Smith got Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina). Hoover won almost 60% of the popular vote and 444 electoral votes to Smith’s paltry 87. Even his home state of New York, which had elected him governor four times between 1918 and 1926, went to Hoover.
Hoover benefited from the country’s booming pre-crash economy and from profound anti-Catholic bigotry. Smith was the first Roman Catholic major party candidate and his opponents made no bones about depicting him as beholden to the Pope in Rome, an enemy of religious freedom who would make it illegal for Protestants to read or own a Bible (because Catholics only listened to the Church authorities, you see, while Protestants followed the Bible) and who would annul all their marriages making their children bastards. The virulently anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned against him. Even the newly built Holland Tunnel became a target; pictures of it were sent out all over the country describing it as a secret tunnel between Rome and New York that Smith had built so His Holiness could travel in comfort to his new domain after his minion was elected.
Many of the Protestants (particularly Methodists, Southern Baptists and German Lutherans) who so feared the nefarious influence of Smith’s Catholicism were also in favor of Prohibition. Al Smith was not. He had been opposed to the Eighteenth Amendment as an unwarranted violation of personal and states’ rights from the beginning. As governor in 1920 he sought to counteract Prohibition via the Walker-Gillette Act which legalized weak beers in New York restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. The next governor, Nathan L. Miller, abolished Walker-Gillette and vigorously enforced the Volstead Act and added even more draconian penalties with the Mullan-Gage Act. Smith was back in office the next year. He replaced Mullan-Gage with the Culliver law which basically took New York law enforcement out of the business of policing liquor consumption and production.
Smith as a Wet (anti-Prohibition) candidate was subject to charges of drunkenness from the Dry factions. That narrative dovetailed neatly into the hatred directed as his Catholicism. Urban Catholics, Irish immigrants had degenerate inclinations with their love of a tipple and their general intemperance. Anti-Saloon League spokesman, politician and Methodist bishop James Cannon, Jr., described Smith’s supporters as the “kind of dirty people that you find today on the sidewalks of New York.”
Smith, although his record was staunchly anti-Prohibition, didn’t want to bring focus to that during the presidential campaign. He knew the white, rural, Protestant South and Midwest were deep Dry and he didn’t want to rub his Wetness in their face. His supporters, on the other hand, had no problem advocating for Smith as an anti-Prohibition candidate.
Which brings us to the title of this here article. While rambling through the catalog of Heritage Auction’s upcoming Americana & Political Signature Auction, I came across a rare political button from Alfred E. Smith’s 1928 Presidential campaign which is quite simply the greatest political button ever made.
That is real, y’all. Can you even believe it? In 1928! And yes, the expression wet dream meant what it means now in 1928. Dr. William Acton described nocturnal emissions as “wet-dreams” in the 1851 second edition of his A Practical Treatise on Diseases of the Urinary and Generative Organs in Both Sexes (you can read the third edition here, and you probably should because it’s a classic creepy Victorian text in the history of sexuality). The pre-sale estimate for the button is $5,000 – $10,000, but the auction is on June 22-23 and already the online bidding is up to $2,500.