By Norm Tessman

"THE MOTHER'S FAREWELL," "CUBA LIBRE!," and "REMEMBER THE MAINE;" Pop culture of the Spanish-American war. 

It was a war of images, symbols, and souvenirs, of sabre-rattling slogans and patriotic pins.  It was a time for thundering marches by John Philip Sousa and heart-rending ballads about young men leaving their mothers to go fight in a foreign land.  It was an era of unabashed flag-waving, lurid yellow journalism, and widespread hero worship. 

On April 24, 1998, the Sharlot Hall Museum will open "1898, Arizona Goes to War," an exhibit about the events and people of the Spanish-American war.  In addition to uniforms, weapons, text, and photographs, the exhibit will offer sheet music, art, war souvenirs, and a variety of other popular cultural items from 1898.  Besides reflecting the sentiments of the folks back home, these items trace the unfolding events of 1898.


Perhaps the best-known slogan of the war was "Remember the Maine," often followed by "to Hell with Spain."  It appeared on badges, ribbons, wall hangings, souvenir spoons, and anywhere else it could be printed.  A variety of lithographs also depicted the explosion, often with sailor's bodies flying into the air.  Pieces of iron, reputedly from the Maine's hull, were sold as mementos.  The American battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898.  American newspapers and the public screamed for revenge and "Remember the Maine" became a cry for war. Ironically, the explosion now seems likely to have been accidental. 

Cuban flags, with their blue and white stripes and red triangle, waved at public meetings and appeared on souvenir pins.  Americans saw the Cubans as underdogs in their long rebellion against Spain, much as people in this country had been a century before.  "Cuba Libre!" meaning "Free Cuba" was the accompanying battle cry. 

The war inspired a profusion of dramatically illustrated sheet music, as composers poured out marches and ballads about the conflict.  Many songs honored heros such as Admiral George Dewey, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Rough Riders, or events such as the sinking of the Spanish fleet in the Philippines.  John Philip Sousa's marches praised American soldiers and sailors, and the American flag which they served. 

Nearly 200,000 volunteer soldiers, from every state and territory, enlisted in 1898.  Art prints, sheet music covers, and hand- tinted photographs dramatically depicted these men leaving their mothers, sweet-hearts, and homes.  Depending upon who they are kissing "good-bye," titles might be "The Mother's Farewell," The Soldier's Goodbye," or "From Love to War."  In some scenarios, a child sits near the soldier's feet, holding his rifle. 

It was our country's most popular war, and patriotism extended even to children.  Young boys formed martial groups such as Prescott's "Brodie's Cadets," and well-to-do parents purchased miniature uniforms, and toy rifles.  One such costume, to appear in the Museum's exhibit, is a high quality reproduction of the uniform and cap of an artillery officer, but sized for a small child. 

People avidly clipped art from popular magazines, particularly that by illustrators such as Frederic Remington and Howard Chandler Christy.  The meaning of some of these prints are obscure today without knowledge of the events of the war.  One Christy sketch in the Museum's collection shows a fashionable woman talking to a wounded returning soldier.  She asks "Are you one of our heroic 71st?"  He replies, "No, I ain't no hero. I'm a regular."  The 71st New York Volunteer Infantry was famous for taking heavy casualties below Kettle Hill in Cuban fighting, but this soldier is adamant about belonging to one of the "Regular" federal regiments rather than a volunteer unit. 

The faces of leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, President McKinley, and admirals Sampson and Dewey appeared on postal envelopes and cards as well as on less-utilitarian souvenir pins, buttons, and flags.  The reverse of a black formal necktie bears Roosevelt's picture, labeled "Our Teddy," on a red, white, and blue background.  Photo images, some for viewing in stereopticons which made them appear three dimensional, pictured army training camps, navy battleships, and village life in Cuba and the Philippines. 

The charge up San Juan Hill was another popular image.  It appeared in an amazing variety of lithographs.  These ranged from Frederic Remington's relatively accurate depiction of Teddy Roosevelt leading the running Rough Riders (he left out the troops of other regiments who were with them) to others showing all the combatants on horse back or armed with civil war muskets. Later, "wild west" shows would feature recreations of the Rough Riders' attack. 

Although the Sharlot Hall Museum has an outstanding Spanish-American War collection (including two attributed Rough Rider uniforms), we are eager to obtain other material for the exhibit . If you have pop art or anything else to loan or donate, please call the museum.

Norm Tessman is Senior Curator at the Sharlot Hall Museum

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (mil218pa)
Reuse only by permission. 
Arizona volunteers for the Spanish-American War, later known as Roosevelt's Rough Riders, muster at Fort Whipple less than 2 months after the "Maine" was destroyed at the harbor in Havana, Cuba, on February 15, 1898.  This scene was repeated across our country in 1898 as some 200,000 young men volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War.