This story originally appeared in the Washington Business Journal.
Reporting done by Sara Gilgore
Dan McGinn found a wooden box at a Maryland flea market 30 years ago. Inside was a brass and glass-enclosed ballot box from a 1940 Senate election, still holding a pile of completed ballots.
It was a piece of history with an intriguing story. And it was the piece that launched him into building a collection of political memorabilia, hungry for more stories like it.
The text on the box reads, "ballot box for democratic ballots" and "deposit white ballots only," which, McGinn said, was not a comment on race but referred to the color of the ballots, some of which are still inside. "I can’t tell you if these ballots were all counted properly or not," McGinn said. "Do I know? No. But it makes you wonder."
The West Virginia native came to Washington 45 years ago to work as a page on Capitol Hill, armed with an interest in politics and government. He started his business roughly 15 years later — and today, its office also serves another purpose.
The McGinn and Co. space at 2111 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington is filled with campaign and inaugural pieces. Mementos representing every administration and era sit on shelves and surfaces. Framed photographs and autographs, buttons and banners decorate just about every wall. It’s hard to believe the communications consulting practice doesn’t do political consulting.
“My clients aren’t presidential candidates, but there are lessons learned that help guide me,” McGinn said. “It’s not that I lecture my clients on history, but I draw from these things for lessons and perspective.”
McGinn said his fascination with history comes from growing up with his mother and grandmother, and that he’s “more passionate about history today than ever. It’s just a lifetime love.”
That love — and the size of his collection — grew after McGinn reached out to the Smithsonian Institution in 1992 and was referred to a man in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The man happened to be selling his own assortment of relics, with a few conditions. They were boxed and sealed, packaged together as an all-or-nothing deal for a price set at $15,000. McGinn wouldn’t be able to see the collection before agreeing to buy it and committing to maintain and preserve it.
“It was Christmas for days and days and days,” McGinn said. “Hundreds of items that are here and elsewhere came out of that collection.”
For years before the internet age, McGinn would spend Sunday afternoons in his office combing through magazines and calling collectors. He keeps his pieces there, as well as in his homes in Arlington and Charlestown, West Virginia, a town he loves because it’s “really” George Washington’s home, he said, where about 80 of his family members are buried.
McGinn said he looks for the stories behind the pieces and people. His favorite is a card signed by William McKinley. The 25th U.S. president’s autograph alone is of negligible value, he said, but on the back of the card is a handwritten note, in pencil, that says the card was given to the engineer of the train that took McKinley from Canton, Ohio, to Buffalo, New York, on Sept. 5, 1901 — directly before he was assassinated at the World’s Fair in Buffalo.
“That could well be the last thing the president ever signed before he was assassinated,” McGinn said. “So it’s that story of that piece that I love.”
The collection includes “hundreds and hundreds” of artifacts, McGinn said, noting that he tries not to be too specific for security concerns. Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman are among his favorite presidents, though many make appearances.
“In my office, we are all partisan, nonpartisan, bipartisan. We have people of all stripes,” McGinn said. “In my collection, it’s the same thing: I have socialists and communists and right-wingers and left-wingers. It’s a snapshot of American history. I don’t have to agree with them or endorse them. I’ve got people across a broad political spectrum.”
Immersing himself in this history also reminds McGinn that politics have always been combative, going back to the 1940s when the Truman administration made the decision to recognize Israel, in “a contentious, extremely difficult debate,” he said.
“There’s a relevance, there’s a contemporary element to it, that you look at these stories — the challenges, the events that are chronicled on the walls here — and you see stories that are playing out in the news today,” McGinn said. “And it’s a reminder that it’s not all necessarily new.”
Click here to dive into the gallery to see the collection up close.