In 2016, Vermont 2nd grade teacher and crafter Jen Ellis decided to gift a pair of her homemade wool mittens to Senator Bernie Sanders on a whim. Ellis makes her mittens using recycled wool sweaters, and the pair sent to Sanders were, like all her mittens, unique. On January 20, 2021, Senator Sanders was photographed by Agence France-Presse photographer Brendan Smialowsk wearing Ellis’s mittens (as well as a coat from Vermont-based Burton) at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The photograph went viral—as did questions about the origin of Sanders’ curious mittens. In no time people began to Photoshop the image of Sanders, placing him in locations around the world, embedding him in famous LP covers, and grafting his image into stills from TV shows and movies. In addition to creating memes featuring Sanders, internet sleuths went into full gear, eventually tracking down Ellis and her family and turning their lives, however briefly, upside down.
In response to the explosion of the meme and its connections to Vermont, the Vermont Folklife Archive put out a call for submissions of the “Bernie Memes,” as they came to be called. Archivist Andy Kolovos found himself overwhelmed by the response, and eventually documented approximately 1,500 images submitted by the public to Vermont Folklife. Rachel Onuf of the Vermont Historical Records Program (VHRP) began to explore ways of making the meme collection public, and thanks to the hard work of archivist Sally Blanchard-O’Brien, the vast majority of the submitted memes are now available via the VHRP’s digital repository.
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