OBJECT HISTORY: A Ballot Box

The Ballot Box from the Wade HouseWhen was the last time you voted? Today? Yesterday? Maybe last week? Voting can be simple and a good way to let people know what you want. You may have voted, for example, on where to get dinner. You and one family member may have wanted to eat Chinese, but the rest of your family wanted pizza. You may have even had to defend why Chinese food was a better choice. Whatever the outcome may have been (hopefully Chinese food), voting usually ends with the majority getting what they want.

In the United States, voting has always been used to make choices, more important than what to eat. It forms the basis of our system of government. We vote for where to build roads, schools and who should be president. There are many ways to vote, but it works best when every eligible voter is allowed to vote. Voting is central to an American way of life, and for that reason, there are a number of requirements to vote like being a U.S. citizen and being eighteen years of age. We vote by raising our hands and voices. Sometimes, though, we need a different way to vote.

In the 1800s, ballot boxes, like the one above, were a popular way to collect votes. This wooden ballot box has very few parts: a hole for a marble and a hinged panel for opening the box. When the voting finished, the hinged panel was lifted to open the box. This made it easy to count the marbles when voting was over.

This ballot box was useful because it let the voter’s choice remain unknown. This is known as a “secret ballot.” They were popular in smaller groups like social clubs. In these small clubs, remaining anonymous was important. Sometimes, people voted on awkward topics like who should enter a club. Remaining unnamed helped to avoid hurting feelings.

Small groups usually voted in a public house. A public house is a place where people could come meet, talk, and play games. Sometimes friends would meet for fun and other times clubs would host official meetings. Public houses played an important role in their communities. During the 1800s, and even now, public houses are places where ideas are traded and developed. For example, Federalists and Republicans, during the early 1800s, discussed and argued over states’ rights. The public house then was important in the diffusion of ideas.

Men voting at a public house in New York City
A public house from the 1850s. Although not the Wade House, this picture sheds some light on what a public house looked like. While looking at the picture, it may be helpful to look at who is missing from the picture. Harper’s Weekly, November 13, 1848. Image courtesy of American Social History Project.

One example of a public house was the Wade House in Greenbush, WI. The Wade House actually served many purposes. It was a hotel, a dance hall, and a social club. Can you think of any social clubs that might meet at a place like the Wade House? When something important came up, people could go to the Wade House for a meeting and make their voice known in a vote.

In the 1850s, only adult men were allowed to belong to and vote in the social club at the Wade House. To vote in a ballot box like you see here, members would be given one white ball and one black ball. The white ball was a yes vote. The black ball was a no vote. Depending on what someone wanted, they would put the ball in the slot. In the end, someone would open the box and count the balls.

In some ways, voting has come a long way: men and women can now vote and participate in social clubs; electronic machines have replaced ballot boxes, and people can even vote online. In other ways, voting has not changed. People still need places, like the Wade House, to meet and discuss the ideas they are voting on. This has resulted in more and more places built for people to meet, discuss and vote on their ideas. For more serious voting, there are schools and town halls for voting. But I hope you now realize; voting can take place in anywhere. It can be as simple as your local gym or the coffee shop down the street. All it requires is a group, some time to talk over your ideas, and a show of hands.

 

Written by Michael DeLeers


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