Thursday, September 18, 2014

Campaigning through Florida, 1888 style

I'm watching every minute of Ken Burns' "The Roosevelts" and makes me wonder whether any U.S. presidents visited pioneer Florida while in office. My search - and the PBS series itself - notes the many times FDR visited Florida. His era is way outside the scope of this blog. I think most people know Teddy Roosevelt was in Tampa in 1898, getting ready to fight in the Spanish-American War. The Theodore Roosevelt Association says he and his wife, Edith, stayed at Tampa Bay Hotel while Teddy waited for orders to leave for Cuba. But he wasn't president at the time.

The hotel, by the way, is now part of the University of Tampa. You can still experience its turn-of-the-century grandeur by visiting the Henry B. Plant Museum inside the main building.

Historic photo of President and Mrs. Cleveland in Florida in 1888.
President and Mrs. Cleveland in Rockledge, Fla., 1888.
Credit: Florida Memory
Tampa hardly qualified as small-town frontier in 1898. Ten years earlier, though, the Brevard County settlement of Rockledge definitely did. That was the year President Grover Cleveland and his popular wife, Frances, visited the riverfront city. Rockledge had been incorporated only a year before, in 1887, according to Wikipedia.

In those days before Internet, movies, TV, or radio, a president and First Lady were bonafide celebrities. A visit by such a prominent couple would bring out an entire town.

Women couldn't vote for president in 1888 (not 'til 1920), but it's safe to assume that a good number of women in Rockledge wanted to see the young First Lady that day. She was popular throughout the nation. The National First Ladies' Library says American women copied her hairstyle, dress style, and even tried to mimic the way she posed in photos. The C-SPAN First Ladies Influence & Image series features a segment on her as a fashion icon. 

The trip to Rockledge was part of a campaign tour that also included stops in Winter Park, Jacksonville, Sanford, and other cities. Author and blogger Ray Osborne's ebook, President Cleveland's Florida Trip 1888, notes the media's fascination with Frances Cleveland. I found the book - and Osborne's history blog named Time Passages - while digging for information on the domestic details of that long-ago visit. I'll report back about the fashion and food after some more research. In the meantime, you can read what Osborne blogged about the trip. No such thing as too much history!

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