The Power of the Purse

June 28th, 2012by Jill AustinFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions

This elegant billfold holds a lot of history. We believe it belonged to John Hancock (1737–93), one of the most prominent founding fathers of the United States of America—you may recognize his standout signature on the Declaration of Independence.


John Hancock’s billfold, c. 1776
ICHi-i65217


Born here in the English colonies, Hancock was a wealthy Boston merchant, who would become part of the country he helped form. He was a political revolutionary who often hosted rallies to keep the fight for American independence on the minds of those up and down the social ranks. Then, like today, the power of the purse—in this case, Hancock’s purse—tremendously affected political change. From the beginning, political sponsorship and lobbying have been hardwired into the American way.


Hancock, c. 1775
ICHi-62514

A fragile piece of early American history, Hancock’s billfold became part of the Museum’s collection in 1920, acquired from the estate of candy magnate and collecting virtuoso Charles F. Gunther (he also donated the Lincoln deathbed). The billfold’s flame-stitch pattern echoes textile patterns found in the Bargello Palace in Florence, Italy. The textile trade evolved from a simple handicraft into a major industry between Europe and the United States from the 1770s through the 1840s. Many mysteries about this object remain, however: we don’t know who made it nor how much money it once contained.

Visit the Museum this summer to see the real thing in our lobby and a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, which bears Hancock’s name, in the ongoing exhibition Facing Freedom.


Declaration of Independence, first printing, 1776
Gift of the Frederick Henry Prince Trusts, 1983.0039

> Discover Unexpected Chicago

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> Explore the Facing Freedom exhibition

> Discover how the Charles F. Gunther Collection helped shape the Museum

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One Response to “The Power of the Purse”

  1. Ralph Pugh Says:

    Gunther was indeed a collecting virtuoso! Born in Germany, he rapidly rose to prominence in late 19th century Chicago not only though a flair for business (candy) but also marketing. He first collected historic artifacts for display in his candy shop. Later he founded a Civil War Museum on the South Side and ended up as one of the aldermen for the First Ward.

    Gunther’s legacy is a mixed one, however. He was a mix of P.T. Barnum and “robber baron”–he obtained and marketed the history that Chicago WANTED to see. His Civil War museum concentrated on the sins of the South (it largely re-created the cells of Richmond’s Libby Prison) while neglecting Chicago’s own notorious Camp Douglas, where thousands of Confederate prisoners perished. No one has as yet investigated his potential ties to the less-reputable elements of the First Ward (Kenna/Coughlin) organization. Once Gunther shut down his Civil War museum in 1899 he rebuilt it and named it the Coliseum–which thereafter not only hosted various national political conventions but also the notorious First Ward Ball. Gunther practiced selective history and gained wealth through a mixture of honorable and dishonorable means. ALL part of a true telling of Chicago history.

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