May Walden, a Socialist Party organizer and activist based in Chicago, shrewdly capitalized on a number of current political issues when she turned this portable drinking cup into a 1912 presidential-campaign novelty for Eugene V. Debs, the 1912 Socialist candidate for United States president. Printed on the reverse side of this intriguing example of printing ephemera is the slogan “A Clean Cup for Clean Politics.” Debs ran for president five times between 1900 and 1920, the last time from federal prison, where he was incarcerated for his antiwar sentiments. In 1912, however, the Socialist Party reached its high watermark, with its candidate receiving nearly one million votes. Reformers also enjoyed an unusual level of political influence that year. Jane Addams seconded Theodore Roosevelt’s nomination for president on the Progressive Party ticket, the first time a social reformer and a woman had been recognized as a political kingmaker, despite the fact that most women did not yet have the right to vote.
A wide spectrum of progressive reforms and reformers heightened concern about public hygiene and cleanliness, which became a major topic of the 1912 election season. Between 1900 and 1920—during a period known as the Progressive Era—reformers approached public health and hygiene from a variety of perspectives and motives. Some drew upon new developments in public health and sanitary science, others on religious ideas from the Social Gospel movement or from evangelical beliefs. Their efforts reflected a broad range of concerns about cleanliness, from the physical (garbage removal, safe housing, immunizations, and campaigns against spitting in public and against venereal disease), to the political (opposing city bosses and their political machines, and fighting for women’s suffrage), to the moral (prohibition and anti-prostitution). Public-health reformers in particular engaged in awareness campaigns about the “white plague”—tuberculosis—along with typhoid and infant diarrhea, which were rampant among immigrant communities living in the nation’s most crowded urban centers.
Embracing the germ theory of disease, reformers worked to end the use of shared drinking vessels on trains, in saloons, at workplaces, and in schools. Walden’s water cup and slogan, “A Clean Cup for Clean Politics,” which she later described in an accompanying note, resonated with all of these progressive initiatives and helped insert them into Debs’s campaign. The cup signaled the Socialist leader’s forward-thinking and informed leadership, symbolized his political incorruptibility and outsider status, and even gave a tacit nod to his moral purity.
The May Walden Papers at the Newberry—particularly some of her socialist writings after 1900—partly document her long reform career. She began working as a social and political activist as a teenager in the early 1880s, when she joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union over concern about her invalid father’s drinking. In 1892 Walden and her husband, Charles H. Kerr, joined the Unitarian All Souls’ Church. Led by Jenkins Lloyd Jones, this Chicago congregation was a community of enlightened, reform-minded people. Before 1900, disillusioned after working for Democrat and Populist leader William Jennings Bryan, Walden joined the Socialist movement and began contributing to Socialist magazines issued by her husband’s Chicago publishing company. Although the couple divorced in 1904, Walden’s commitment to the movement remained firm, and she joined the Socialist Party. She stumped for the party in Illinois in 1912 and 1913 and contributed her own money to fund the water-cup project for Debs’s campaign.
Written by Newberry Director of Public Programs Rachel Bohlmann, this essay appears in The Newberry 125, Stories of Our Collection.