Collecting U.S. political history

Campaign buttons and associated memorabilia continue to attract a wide range of enthusiasts.

by Leigh Elmore

When it comes to a popular genre for collectors, U.S. presidential campaign political buttons continue to impress. Not only do political buttons represent the history of our country's presidential elections, they continue to be produced every four years. That dynamic ensures that the novice can get into the game without extravagant expense, and that real value builds up in the rarer memorabilia. That is, the hobby is affordable enough to welcome new collectors while the avid collector can still find and acquire items of real value.

Variety of campaign buttons from over the years.

And the field is certainly not limited to buttons. While campaign buttons are the most recognized and widely collected of all campaign objects, according to the American Political Items Collectors, the largest organization for political collecting in the country, "Our members actively hunt for vintage political ribbons, ferrotypes, glassware, china, autographs, books, textiles, ephemera, posters, medals, tokens, postcards, pennants, license plates, sheet music and photography." Certainly, the interests of collectors extend beyond the U.S. presidents to the political campaigns themselves, the hopeful candidates, the third parties, the first ladies, the primaries, conventions and inaugurations. Plus, collectors can be motivated by a keen sense of history as well as memories of their own lives in the context of America's political progression. Baby boomers, for example, have memories of John F. Kennedy rising to the presidency in 1961. Generation Xers may have fond memories of their childhoods during Ronald Reagan's two administrations. Personal experiences are big drivers of one's collecting specialty.

Evolution of campaigns.

And just as the American political/electoral landscape took years to evolve to today's seemingly endless campaign, so too, the trappings of those elections began humbly, even circumspectly, before acquiring the pizzazz of Madison Avenue in the late 20th century. Ron Wade, a past president of the Bush Political Items Collectors, a national group based in Dallas, said that some might think that the golden age of political buttons was fairly recent occurrence. "In a time when people think of a Nixon button as being an antique, you might expect that political campaign buttons or pins are a modern device, conceived by some media representative to boost name recognition. "It comes as a surprise to many that George Washington wore the first political button in 1789 at his first Inauguration in New York," said Wade. "He, and many present, wore buttons, but these buttons were clothing buttons made of brass and proudly reading 'G.W.-Long Live the President', modeling the phrase 'Long live the King.'"

Teddy Roosevelt button - $45

Since most campaigns for the presidency didn't
involve active campaigns, as we know them today, political memorabilia for the early presidents consisted of the buttons and silk ribbons. It wasn't until the first "modern-style" election in 1840 that America saw a candidate actively admitting he even wanted the office with William Henry Harrison's log cabin campaign. "Literally hundreds of objects featuring the log cabin design were used to influence voters throughout the growing new country. The log cabin campaign belied the fact that Harrison wasn't born in a log cabin at all, but to considerable wealth. That didn't matter since the idea "sold" him as someone befitting to be elected president and he was," said Wade. And it took the advent of the tintype and ferrotype photography processes before the likeness of a presidential candidate could be available for use on campaign buttons or devices. That didn't occur until the 1860 campaign of Abraham Lincoln. "For the first time a voter hundreds of miles away from Washington could actually see what a candidate for president looked like," Wade said. The 1860 ferrotype buttons for Lincoln are easily distinguishable from his 1864 re-election buttons as his famous beard was by then on all official photos of the Civil War president. "And calling these 'buttons' is stretching it a bit since most of these were made of a metal ring surrounding a round tintype picture with a hole punched in the top, from which a ribbon was used to hang the picture on a supporter's lapel."

One of the first campaign buttons -1896

What we now know as a campaign button didn't come about until 1896 with the patent by the now famous Whitehead and Hoag Company. The device was made of four pieces sandwiched together – a piece of metal on which was placed a printed image with a slogan or photo of 1896 candidate for President William McKinley or his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan. On top of that printed image was a thin piece of see-through celluloid and all of this was placed together by a machine with a small metal pin attached on the reverse. "The 1896 discovery of campaign buttons was so popular that now, buttons from the McKinley-Bryan race are still fairly common and can be bought for as little as $10, although most buttons are much more than that," Wade said.

Another 20 years or so passed before a two-piece button was created with just one single piece of metal used with the lithograph printing made directly on the metal piece and the same type pin used on the reverse. "These are still in use but the cost of initial setup for production of 'litho' pins is such that these pins are produced when a run of thousands of buttons is needed. Celluloid buttons can be produced far less expensively when only a small run is needed, such as for a local headquarters," Wade said.
The value of political buttons, like most collectibles, is based on condition, rarity and popularity among the collecting public. Most popular to collectors are buttons for the very famous presidents (Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy) and the infamous (e.g. Nixon). "It surprises most new collectors to know that certain buttons from the last presidential election can sell for more than a Lincoln button," Wade said. "In that instance it is more the rarity of the item that affects the buying market. Perhaps only one or two buttons from a particular event ever enter the collecting hobby, which drives the price higher and higher in numerous auctions and political collector shows held nation-wide."

What to collect

Many collectors, either limited by budget or their interest in only one person, are "specialists" collecting only Kennedy buttons or Nixon buttons or buttons relating to a specific issue such as prohibition or women's rights. These specialists usually are trying to get all buttons for that candidate or issue to make their collection as complete as possible. The point is to collect what you like. Wade became a collector at the tender age of nine during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign of 1960 at the county fair in Gilmer, TX.


1960 Kennedy button valued at only $7.95

"I got my first two buttons. It was the famous Kennedy-Nixon campaign, when my dad and I came across a vendor selling big Nixon campaign buttons
for a dollar. As a die-hard Nixon fan, I just had to have one. But down the street was a little booth for Kennedy. I was too embarrassed to be seen at a Democrat booth, so I made my dad go get one of the lithograph campaign buttons with the photos of Kennedy and Johnson on it. By the age of 18, when Nixon was again seeking the presidency, I had accumulated hundreds of buttons and all the other things political collectors collect – bumper stickers, posters, brochures and so forth," Wade explained.

That experience helped Wade mold a career as an operative in Republican circles and led to a close friendship with former President George W. Bush and other recent U.S. presidents. "A lot of collectors begin after they have worked in a political campaign," he said. That gives them access to free buttons distributed through local campaign headquarters. While free buttons at headquarters are getting harder and harder to come by as candidates turn their resources to TV ads instead of buttons, they can still be had. State and national party conventions are one of the best places to get buttons and trade buttons. "I've always advised new collectors to get more than one, if possible, to trade the extra for something else you need should the opportunity arise," said Wade. "You can collect on a shoestring spending little or nothing or you can collect big-time."

Tracking value

Although campaign buttons were generally produced in mass quantities, many examples made their way to the trash heap when the presidential contest concluded. Of course, mass quantities in the early to mid-1800s when they were first used to convey partisan loyalty compare differently to the millions of buttons produced expressly for collectors today. Specializing in older buttons presents more of a challenge for collectors since there are fewer on the market, but the price doesn't always rise in relation to the age of the button.

1940 button for Wendell Willkie - $7.95

Some of the most popular buttons have sentimental value attached to them, with those produced for the Kennedy campaign being prime examples. "A Kennedy-Humphrey button can be worth $300-$500. This outranks even Lincoln, Roosevelt and Huey Long memorabilia," said collectibles writer Joyce Worley.
Most of the buttons made during the last 50 or so years aren't nearly that valuable, including the more common Kennedy buttons. Many 20th century examples can be found for under $20 and even the harder to locate examples won't sell for more than $100 in most markets.

One collector spent over $100,000 for one of the rarest political campaign buttons for the 1920 election. "The button for James Cox is valuable for a number of reasons," Wade said. "Very few are known to exist and Cox's vice presidential nominee was a young man named Franklin D. Roosevelt. All Cox-Roosevelt buttons with their photo likenesses on them are valuable if in good condition. And condition is everything in the hobby. A $10,000 button with big water spots might not bring $50 within the hobby." Scratches, spots, discoloring or cuts all diminish the value of a button. Today some buttons can still be found for as low one- or two dollars at flea markets – certainly an affordable start to a collection. But even better is free from a candidate's campaign headquarters.

1837 'Hard Times' token for Martin VanBuren

This brass token is a satirical swipe at the sitting president, Andrew Jackson, shown sitting in a strong box holding a bag of money in one hand and a sword in the other. On the back is the personification of Jackson as a jackass with an LLD honorary law degree. "I Take the Responsibility The Constitution As I Understand It Roman Firmness L.L.D. Veto" is the message.

Jackson's fiscal policies as president brought a booming economy to a screeching halt, and then threw it into full reverse, sending the country into a deep depression. People began to distrust paper money and began hoarding coins. A shortage of change developed and merchants began striking their own coinage in the form of this "hard times" token. After it became illegal to use anything other than coins struck at a U.S. Mint, these tokens soon became worthless and most were melted down for scrap. This is one of a handful that survived. The minter of this token meant it to be an indictment of Jackson and his policies.
This token is valued at $95 at ronwade.freeservers.com.

Trust the experts – the APIC

Without a doubt, the American Political Items Collectors organization has evolved to be the clearing-house both for information about and value of political memorabilia. Founded in 1945, today it has more than 3,000 members around the country in various local chapters. The APIC offers a wealth of resources on the association website (www.apic.us), various publications and through its active members. It tries to take a strict stand against its members dealing in fakes and reproductions.

The APIC cooperates with the Smithsonian Institution, presidential libraries, presidential homes, birthplaces and museums as well as colleges and universities to facilitate the understanding of American politics using the artifacts of political campaigns. It is currently planning its 2014 national convention to be held the last week of July 2014 in Denver. The American Political Item Collectors offers a list of guidelines to use in assessing value to a collectible item. Values of political items fluctuate based on several factors. Some things to consider:


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com


 

Feature Stories Archive — past articles