How-To: Abraham Lincoln Campaign Torch

How-To: Abraham Lincoln Campaign Torch


With our Independence Day holiday weekend upon us, a weekend project with historical significance is in order. MAKE contributing editor and resident pyromaniac Bill Gurstelle offered a project that fits the bill in his Remaking History column from Volume 33: the Abraham Lincoln Political Campaign Torch.

Here’s the fascinating historical background from Bill’s intro:

Presidential political campaigns were much different in the nineteenth century, and to many people (me included), they sound like much more fun. Instead of ceaseless televised debates and commercials, scripted sound bites, and never-ending media analysis, the key political tool was the parade.

While everyone may still love a parade, Americans of 150 years ago, it seems, were absolutely enamored of them. Imagine for a moment you’re a member of the “Wide Awakes,” one of many political marching clubs organized to drum up support for political candidates. Since marching is what you do, you and your fellow Wide Awakes do it often and are very good at it. Everyone in the group (and there are thousands) owns a torch. Your torch — a new gimbal-mounted, nickel-plated tin torch in the shape of a Union Army musket — is particularly eye-catching.

When an evening march is organized on behalf of your presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, your club takes to the streets, waving torches with pride and artistry, even using them in the manner of rifles, presenting a display of close order drill to the crowds lining the streets. It’s very exciting.

Mr. Lincoln himself rarely attended actual parades, because at the time, candidates did not campaign personally. They stayed home and let others make speeches on their behalf. But on Aug. 8, 1860, Lincoln did participate in a rally near his home in Springfield, Illinois. He was mobbed by an enthusiastic crowd and was lucky not to have been injured.

These parades often lasted two to three hours. The costumed or uniformed participants sang campaign songs and shouted slogans as they marched. To satisfy the need for parade torches, scores of small manufacturing companies sprang up across the United States to fabricate them. Their factories ran at full steam, stamping out hundreds of thousands of unusually shaped torches — from rifle look-alikes for the aforementioned close order drill ceremonies, to torches built in the shape of faces, animals, capital letters (“L” for Lincoln), hats, pinecones, brooms, and pick axes.

Night after night, all over the country, people marched by torchlight, hoping the bright lights held aloft would awaken sympathetic feelings in onlookers and carry their candidate to victory. But the era of such campaigning tactics was soon to wane. In the 1860s and 1870s, strategies such as parades were the best way to reach people of all social status. However, as literacy rates rose and newspapers became less politically biased (at least overtly) political campaigning became less spectacular and more educational. By 1900, the importance and frequency of the torchlight parade declined dramatically, and the torch-manufacturing industry slid into a steep decline from which it never recovered.

Bill walks us through the simple build, which essentially calls for a metal can, high-temp epoxy, a hex nut, cotton rope, a wooden dowel, aluminum foil, and kerosene. Below is a visual synopsis (illustrated by Julie West). Check out the full tools and materials list and step-by-step in Bill’s project online.







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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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