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Discover Mid-America — January 2008

All it takes is love of history
and five bucks

by Vicki Walker

The passion behind collecting Political Americana can compel one to obtaining a bloody towel from the assassination of President William McKinley or a pair of Ronald Reagan slippers or a personal letter to a mayor of a small town from President Theodore Roosevelt.

Such items, plus candidate buttons and key chains, banners, beer cans and sheet music, are part of America’s political history. Our ideological timeline, as it were. The history of which may be collected by anyone with an interest and a couple bucks.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Green or even a Whig; whether you enjoy the issues instead of the candidates — women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, the Civil War — be a plumber or a president, there is something out there in the wide world of garage sales, flea markets and yes, eBay and the Internet, just for you.

Pinbacks and politics

To our modern-day surprise, during the early days of American politics presidential candidates felt it below them to go out and campaign for votes. They sent surrogates instead to speak for them while they remained at home with their papers and dignity intact.

There were no political parties then. Those entities didn’t come into play until 1796 when John Adams ran as a Federalist and Thomas Jefferson as a Democratic-Republican — which seems like an oxymoron today.

George Washington didn’t campaign. In fact, he didn’t even want to be president. But at his inauguration there were a few supporters sporting metal clothing buttons that had the name of Washington printed on them.

That little button eventually became the campaign button we all recognize today; but it followed an interesting path and many other items joined the little pin over the centuries.

According to a story from the Osgood File radio show, the first buttons produced in quantity for the public were made for the 1824 campaign with Andrew Jackson. These could be pinned or tied to your lapel. However, pins with photographs of the candidates didn’t appear until the 1860s, when ferrotypes, sometimes called tintypes — a photographic image of the candidate on a piece of tin or iron and then slipped into a brass frame — appeared. Ferrotypes, especially of Lincoln, can bring in hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

The celluloid-covered pinbacks were first used in the 1896 presidential election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, according to Hail to the Candidate: Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcast by Keith Melder. Because of their popularity, they were produced in mass quantities, thereby lessening their value over time. By 1916, stamped buttons that had lithographs (an early method of printing onto metal and other surfaces) began to appear.

However, there is more to collect than just buttons! Campaigns, even early campaigns, would put the image of their candidate on just about anything, including beer cans, sheet music, hats, pennants, watch fobs (a fob was a chain that held a pocket watch and hooked onto a man’s vest pocket), razors, tobacco packets, postcards and jewelry.

Political textiles are another class of memorabilia that many focus on. Silk, linen, burlap, cotton, velvet and oilcloth had images printed on them. Broadsides — originally banners made of cloth — were mostly commemoratives. For instance, a broadside was printed when Thomas Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826.

William McKinley/Theodore Roosevelt items are also popular because McKinley was assassinated in his second term in 1901. The bloody towel mentioned at the beginning of this article came from the McKinley assassination, according to Alan Beam, a collector and high school principal in Holton, KS.

Many people collect McKinley because there are so many of the buttons available. Most you can pick up for a few dollars, so it’s a good place to start, according to Beam.

But why is an FDR for President pinback less valuable than a Davis/Bryan, candidates no one ever heard of?

Value in the pocket of the beholder

“Rare,” Beam said, “doesn’t necessarily mean most valuable. Condition, quantity made, uniqueness are all involved in an item’s value.”

For instance, remember that during George Washington’s inauguration selected people wore clothing buttons to mark the day though there was no formal campaign — much less political items — for Washington. Today, those buttons could bring in anywhere between $2,500 and $10,000, depending on the condition, Beam asserted.

He goes on to say that “new” items (20th century) may bring in a lot of money because not many were made, or it had an unusual photo or slogan, or maybe one of the candidates went on to a higher office.

For instance, a jugate (an item with two pictures on it) of Presidential candidate James Cox and Vice Presidential running mate Franklin Delano Roosevelt made in 1920 is very difficult to find and some have sold for as much as $100,000. This button is one of the most rare major-party buttons collected because of the double portrait; FDR later won the presidency and the button was made by their campaign and not an outside agency.

Those kinds of campaign-made “support my candidate” memorabilia are becoming more difficult to find.

According to a story by Michele Alice on the website www.AuctionBytes.com, because of the dependency on electronic marketing, which has taken place in the last 40 years, the production of political memorabilia by the candidates has slowed considerably. Candidates would rather spend their money on television or print ads that reach thousands or even millions of people instead of buttons or ephemera that may be worn when the candidate is in town, then gets put aside.

Ephemera is a category of memorabilia that include items such as posters, postcards, ballots, badges, etc., which many collectors can garner through the campaign headquarters, caucuses and national conventions. The debris swept up at the end of the convention can be pure gold to a collector because many of those items were made specifically for the convention so there are limited quantities.

Nevertheless, electronic media, YouTube and direct marketing are making it harder to find the “good stuff,” but collectors love the hunt.

The collectors

The people who collect these kinds of items are as varied as the items they collect.

Cary Demont started collecting over 40 years ago in Peoria, IL, and turned his young boy’s interest in historical memorabilia into a career.

“My friend’s father was a judge and he was running for re-election. I just got hooked,” Demont said.

A history buff anyway, collecting what some call “pieces of American history” just seemed like a fit.

Demont is one of the foremost collectors and appraisers of rare coins and Americana, and president of the North Star chapter of APIC (American Political Items Collectors) for the states of Minnesota, Western Wisconsin, parts of the Dakotas and Iowa. He also owns Historic Americana Investments.

He has one of the first known American political buttons ever produced. Made in 1766, it is a metal clothing button with a raised profile of William Pitt (the former British prime minister who spoke passionately against taxing Americans without representation) with the words “No Stamp Act” embossed on it.

“It is very similar to one produced by Paul Revere. It was the spark for the Revolution!” Demont said.”

Yes, that Revolution, the one that gave us the right of Freedom of Speech that started this whole hobby.

While Demont is a high-end collector, he insists that this hobby is for everyone. Alan Beam proves Demont’s point.

Beam, the high school principal from Holton, also teaches history at the local community college. He was looking for something to collect one day years ago and a friend of his discovered a McKinley button while going through a house that had been demolished. Beam was so taken that he started collecting Political Americana. That button, he later learned, was only worth about $25, but it started him on a life–long journey of discovering history through our political campaigns.

Michael McQuillen, regional director and president of the Indiana Chapter for APIC and co-director of Wendell Wilkie Specialty chapter, has been collecting for 25 years.

“I started in high school — going to garage sales, antique shows and then in college, I started selling some of my collection to make some extra money.”

That eventually paid off for McQuillen. After a stint as a county prosecuting attorney, he became a full-time dealer of political memorabilia. The website, www.Politicalparade.com is an outcome of that.

“A big part of our business is eBay, but I travel a lot and attend auctions and shows,” McQuillen said.

McQuillen’s specialty is Wendell Wilkie, 1940 Republican candidate for president. One item he wishes he had is a button from the 1920 Presidential race between Warren G Harding/Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt/James Cox. FDR lost, but that button, if it has a picture on it, could be worth $15,000!

Besides buttons, personal memorabilia is very much in demand and can garner a high price.

“Paper items like personal letters that are handwritten by the president while in office are rare and valuable,” McQuillen said.

“There are many items with the president’s signature that are practically mass produced, but personal writings or memos that turn out to impact an historical event are high on the ‘want’ list.”

McQuillen found a letter from Teddy Roosevelt written to the wife of a small town mayor who was upset that Roosevelt had been misrepresented in the press. This was an important find because it wasn’t a generic letter, like a “Happy 100th Birthday,” but had a specific reason for being written.

Finding historical political memorabilia is not easy. One has to search through many antique stores before finding any political stuff and when found, according to Beam, the items tend to be overpriced. Still, he said, the search can lend it self to a rare find.

Two of Beam’s most unusual items are a pair of Ronald Reagan’s house slippers, which he picked up at a political show, and an 1860 item from the Abraham Lincoln/Stephen Douglas election.

However, he said, “My pathetic little collection is nothing compared to what some avid collectors hold. The most I’ve ever spent was $500. My average is $75-150.”

Nevertheless, when he moved to Holton, he sold his original collection to pay for the move and started again. So collecting can be lucrative and an investment.

Larry Brokofsky of Lincoln, NE is the regional VP of APIC and editor of a newsletter for the local Nebraska chapter. He owns an unusual political item.

“It’s a Taft Cookie jar,” he said. President Howard Taft was a rather large man, so putting him on a cookie jar was apropos.

“Iowa is hot right now because of the caucuses. Every four years there is a new influx of buttons and ephemera,” Brokofsky added.

Brokofsky doesn’t collect much after 1960. “My time is between 1880-1940. You won’t find many 2-inch pins back then. Bigger is not always better.”

Brian Krapf, national president of APIC and a trial lawyer in real life, collects anything connected to Winston Churchill, including a 1946 poster of Winston Churchill and Harry S Truman when Churchill visited Westminster College in Fulton, MO and gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. He also collects local, which means anything that has to do with his state, Georgia. That would include campaigns from county clerk to governor. One of the most unusual items in his collection is a Churchill poster made in Palestine in 1940 and in Hebrew. He won it after a day of bidding.

That cost him plenty. However, when he was a kid, he found a (Herbert) Hoover button and the antique dealer sold it to him for a dollar.

“I still own that button,” said Krapf, considered one of the nation’s foremost collectors and conservators of Political Americana.

The hunt

Campaigning is as uniquely American as is the flotsam and jetsam that come with it.

As Krapf said, “It’s a love of American democracy. Like jazz, these items are uniquely American.”

Andrew Jackson, who ran for president in 1824, was the first candidate to have freebies for anyone who would support him. However, 1840 is considered the real birth year of campaigning when a consistent image was attached to anything and everything.

The value of items in history really depends on the number of such items made, the condition of the item, the creativity of the item.

On the website Antique Mystique (www.antiquemystique.com), there is an array of ephemera and buttons. One package is a group of buttons from Another Democrat for Reagan/Bush; Nixon/Agnew, two Dewey/Brickers, two Roosevelts and a Wilkie/McNary for $45 — for all of them. For $30, get a Vintage Franklin Roosevelt 7” cloth bookmark. But a quick check on eBay of Andrew Jackson memorabilia turns up a lock of hair that is priced at $1,000. But, according to Krapf, you can buy a presentable collection of buttons from 1900-1940 for $20 a piece, because most of those items were made in such quantities. “But they are still historical,” he added.

Today, new buttons will cost anywhere from $2-5. However, be careful of reproductions. Many were done in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly as giveaways by a variety of companies as premiums.

One way to tell a fake or a reproduction is by the curl or edge of the button. Such buttons will have a number beginning with “A0” or the candidates’ name and date. Sometimes, fakers will try and scrape off the edge or paint over it.

Thanks to a “politics makes strange bedfellows” moment, collectors of political memorabilia have the federal government’s support.

In 1972, two unlikely opponents came together and sponsored the only piece of legislation co-sponsored by both men. Senators Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and George McGovern (D-SD) were both collectors and both members of APIC. The Hobby Protection Act requires the words “COPY” and the date of the manufacture on the item to denote a reproduction.

APIC

In 1945, the American Political Items Collectors was formed. Today, it boasts of over 3,500 members nationwide and as diverse a collection of collectors anywhere. They were instrumental in lobbying Congress to pass the Hobby Protection Act. Their website, www.apic.us, is loaded with information on the law, information on local chapters, how to recognize fakes and more. Consider the membership protectors of this hobby, which they say is not a rich man’s game, and even more so with the advent of the Internet.

Patriotism has a lot to do with collecting, but a love of history in all its forms is by far the most common denominator. Maybe one must get some distance to understand the importance of historical items before one can appreciate them for what they are and for what they stood for.

Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute, wrote in the forward to the book Hail to the Candidate, there was more civic engagement during the 1800s than there is today,

Kennedy lamented the lack of excitement and involvement from citizens today and revisited the joyous exuberance that once enveloped politics. “To be joyous about politics you must believe in the democratic process. You must, to put it simply, think it wonderful to be able to do the people’s will.”

“They celebrated politics, and themselves in it and because of it,” he said.

This was the great experiment that started in 1776, and those behind it understood what could happen if the public didn’t get involved.

The collectors of today rejoice in that experiment and invite all who share that love to join them. All you need is $5 and a love of history.

Vicki Walker is a Kansas City-based writer. Contact her at vwatsonwalker@gmail.com.

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