17 Curious Facts About the 1920 Election

It featured the first opportunity for women to vote, the last Ohioan to become president, and a question about absentee votes.

The election of November 2, 1920 was remarkable in many ways. It was, of course, the first national election in which women were able to vote equally with men. It saw the victory of Warren G. Harding, the final Ohioan elected to the White House, who beat another Ohioan, James Cox. And it was the last “newspaper election” before radio started turning the media tide to electronic formats. Here are a few curiosities from the 1920 election as it played out in Cincinnati.

Political pundits had no idea how women, after a century of demanding the vote, would perform in an actual election and were shocked that women behaved much like men.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Sexism was in its flower

When the 19th Amendment was finally adopted, The Cincinnati Times-Star, which had been resolutely opposed to giving women the vote, predicted that few women would actually register. “If every woman is forced to give her age,” the newspaper opined, “there is going to be a great abstention from voting…”

Domestic tranquility

According to The Cincinnati Post [November 2, 1920], “woman suffrage did not ruin one home Tuesday, or even spoil a meal.” Many newspapers timed women voters and determined that they spent more time in the voting booth than men—apparently making more individual selections and fewer party-line ballots.

Dogs, babies, and Girl Scouts

The Cincinnati Enquirer [November 3, 1920] reported, “Some women took their dogs along and mothers carried their babies to the polls and handed them over to an obliging policeman or a willing Girl Scout, while they disappeared into the booths to mark their ballots.”

No need for milk

Officials in Precinct C of Ward 3 decided that some women coming to vote might bring babies and those babies might fuss and disturb the other voters. For just such emergencies, the polling staff kept a bottle of milk available. When no babies showed up at the Precinct 3 poll at 3558 Montgomery Road, clerk C.L. Hopkins drank the milk.

A tradition of informing voters

The Cincinnati branch of the League of Women Voters evolved out of the Women’s Suffrage Committee of Greater Cincinnati. which decided on September 21, 1920 to establish one of the oldest branches of the National League of Women Voters. For the past century, Cincinnati voters have been supported by this dedicated organization.

Some women were not suffragists

One of the leaders of the anti-Suffrage movement, Beatrice Shillito of the Cincinnati department store family, sent a letter to candidate Warren Harding outlining three of the reasons why she and other women were opposed to women’s suffrage. First, it would double the cost of elections and increase the tax burden. States’ rights were also being violated, and the voters of Ohio had already rejected votes for women on four previous occasions.

Voters needed nine ballots to vote

In 1920, voters were handed nine separate ballots as they entered the polling station, then deposited marked ballots in nine corresponding ballot boxes. The nine ballots were: 1) Ballot for presidential electors for four parties (Democrat, Republican, Socialist, or Single Tax); 2) statewide ballot for those four parties, plus the Farmer-Labor party and the Independent ticket; 3) a non-partisan judicial ballot; 4) the statewide Crabbe Prohibition referendum; 5) citywide initiative to expand streetcars to California, Ohio; 6) initiative to increase Cincinnati police pay; 7) a county road levy; 8) Cincinnati operating tax increase; and 9) city schools levy.

Voters selected ballots by party in 1920. There were no elephants or donkeys; Republicans used an eagle, while Democrats employed a rooster.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

No elephants or donkeys

Although political cartoonists employed elephants to signify Republicans and donkeys to depict Democrats, those were not the official party emblems. Republican ballots showed an eagle at the top, while Democratic ballots were emblazoned with a rooster. The Socialists employed a hand holding a torch. Prohibitionists used a rose.

Charlie Chaplin movie at Music Hall

To avoid the often unruly crowds that gathered outside newspaper offices waiting for updates, The Cincinnati Post rented Music Hall to announce election returns. Between bulletins from the Board of Elections, The Post showed films starring Constance Talmadge and Charlie Chaplin, music by “Smittie’s famous band,” and a program of stereopticon slides.

Scissoring off Democrats

A woman voter brought a pair of scissors to the polls at Colerain Avenue and Rachel Street, home of Precinct E in the 22nd Ward. As she left the booth, she pulled out the snips and started cutting away half the ballot. Confronted by the polling executives, she explained she had no use for the Democratic candidates and only wanted to vote for Republicans. They gave her a fresh ballot and some instructions.

Politically correct office attire

An unnamed stenographer told The Cincinnati Post she was glad the election was over. One of her employers was a Democrat, the other Republican. Throughout the campaign, she had to remember to wear a Cox button while in the Democrat’s office and a Harding button in the Republican’s office.

Former slave denied a vote

William M. Kocsiss, 77, was denied a ballot because he had not registered properly. Kocsiss, a shoemaker during the week and a minister on Sundays, appeared at the Board of Elections in his Civil War uniform. He was a slave who joined the Union army on emancipation and first voted in 1864, supporting Abraham Lincoln’s second term.

Election wagers provided entertainment

The day after the election, Cincinnati commuters were entertained by men who had lost bets on the outcome. One man stood at the corner of Sixth and Walnut and crowed like a rooster for three minutes. Another man rode around downtown in a wheelbarrow while the loser pushed it. A portly gent shoved a peanut around Fountain Square with his nose.

Cincinnati had our own presidential candidate

Although he polled negligible numbers in 1920, Cincinnati was home to its very own presidential candidate. The Rev. Aaron S. Watkins, 4338 Eastern Avenue, pastor of the Linwood Methodist Episcopal Church, ran for president in 1920 on the Prohibition Party ticket and attracted but a smattering of votes.

Really ‘high’ tech election results

The Cincinnati Enquirer worked out a deal with the Union Central Life Insurance Company, owner of the then-tallest building in town, to flash coded election results from the top of the Union Central building. An H for Harding or a C for Cox indicated who had the lead at that time. The governor’s race was communicated by colored lanterns: green for the Democratic candidate, red for the Republican contender.

Results on the rails

The Big Four Railroad adopted a system, developed in Cincinnati, to share election results among passengers on all of its trains. Bulletins distributed by the general superintendent’s office arrived in all division offices and were parceled out to each train. Conductors read the updates in each car.

Questions about absentee ballots

The day after the election, The Enquirer wondered, “It will be interesting to learn just how long after the election those ballots mailed by absent voters reached their destinations.”

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