Benjamin Harrison walks into a bar…: An Archaeological Joke about the Treachery of Objects

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to present two papers and co-present a third paper at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Washington, D.C. One of those papers was part of a forum for three-minute papers focusing on a particular artifact’s journey. The unorthodox format is a great departure from the sometimes staid and stuffy 15-minute presentation and provides archaeologists an opportunity to work on their storytelling. The best papers in this venue get people laughing, convey archaeological concepts without jargon, and remind everyone of why they became archaeologists in the first place. The following was my effort, although I have added some stuff I couldn’t fit into a three-minute power talk. The paper is based on a Benjamin Harrison tobacco pipe recovered from a late 19th-century saloon privy in Albany, NY, part of a Phase III data recovery for a community housing project sponsored by New York State Homes and Community Renewal. The images come from my presentation. I had a lot of fun and got a bunch of laughs and I hope you do too.


Archaeologists rely on the permanence of objects and their functions, but sometimes, the journey of an artifact, no matter how brief, challenges that durability.

In 1928, the artist Rene Magritte warned that this was not a pipe. To an archaeologist, this statement may sound both threatening and familiar. While Magritte was speaking of the inability of images to be the objects they represent, it also applies to artifacts and the lives and behaviors they embody.


In the spirit of Magritte, then, I argue that this object, recovered from a privy behind a late  19th-century working-class saloon in Sheridan Hollow, an infamous Irish backwater in the city of Albany, NY, is also not a pipe.  The saloon was owned and operated by the Mordant family, a middle-class family of Irish immigrants. Complete examples of these pipes are embossed with the phrase “Protection for American Labor,” and enhanced by the bearded mug of our third-shortest president, Benjamin Harrison. During the 1888 presidential campaign, Harrison promised a continuation of high tariffs to favor American-made goods, an economic policy that directly benefitted nobody but Gilded Age manufacturers. Ironically, however, by the time Harrison found his face on the business end of a tobacco pipe, most of the major German and Dutch kaolin tobacco pipe manufacturers no longer served American customers. American smokers were finding cheaper options with Ohio pipemakers, so maybe the whole tariff thing was working after all.


Harrison had a conflicted relationship with the Irish working-class and tobacco, to say the least. In 1874, while the editor of the Indianapolis Journal, Harrison wrote about the working habits of the Irish and their love of tobacco in terms that would make Chuck Orser blush. A Democratic campaign primer quoted Harrison in an early version of gotcha politics:

…a short time ago I happened to be in a place where, without inconvenience, I could see these fellows working, and it was as good as a circus to see how they went about it…They were all smoking. Almost every fellow had a pipe in his mouth. Now, it is usually inconvenient for a man to work and smoke at the same time; the pipe is in his way if he is in a dead earnest about his work. If you men have to smoke, you do so when you are through work at noon. But these fellows, whom the Democratic council are paying out of taxes, had plenty of time to smoke. One of them would take out his tobacco and roll it in his hands to grind it up fine, and leisurely tuck it in his pipe. Well, after striking a light he would take his shovel and start off toward the gravel pile.

The Democratic primer continued in a similar fashion, suggesting further that Harrison was willing to deny tobacco to the laboring class altogether.


Later, Harrison refereed negotiations following the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, but only after leading a citizens’ militia to break the strike in Indianapolis. Just before leaving the White House in 1892, he clumsily presided over the deadly Homestead riots, although his distraction may be understandable; Harrison’s wife would die after suffering for nearly a year with tuberculosis just three months after the strike and two weeks before the election.

In between these mileposts, Harrison coerced and pandered heavily to Irish Americans and the working class during the 1888 election, as these groups became more influential than ever before. Republican “get-out-the-vote” efforts included campaign tobacco pipes like the one from the saloon privy. The pipe may have been handed out to factory workers, along with their pay envelope and scaremongering leaflets threatening layoffs if the Democrats squashed the tariffs already in place.

So, given Harrison’s troubles relating to the working class, what exactly did this pipe mean to its user and his fellow publicans? Was this a proudly misguided piece of political swag mismatching Harrison and worker solidarity? Or was this just a free pipe, used only when you hoped no one was looking? The saloon context indicates public use and perhaps a very public discard. After they counted the last of the Homestead dead, lighting up this pipe in a Sheridan Hollow saloon may have been like wearing a Yankees cap backwards at a South Boston urinal. And Homestead may have been the last straw that led to a deliberate one-way journey for this particular object to a dark, steamy privy.


Like Magritte’s pipe, the treachery of objects in this case warns us against believing this artifact is just another tobacco pipe. In fact, rather than a static representation of habitual smoking, a little context of this object’s journey demonstrates how a thing can stand for so much more than itself: in this case, class relations, ethnicity and nationalism, political literacy and illiteracy.

So, while it may not be just a pipe, it could be a punchline. An archaeologist, an Irish railroad worker, and Benjamin Harrison walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Is this some kind of joke?”


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