The Collecting of Campaign Buttons Has Become "America's Last Great Treasure Hunt"
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They still root for Theodore Roosevelt and pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for choice items associated with any of his campaigns--even though he last ran for the White House 84 years ago and has been dead since 1919. They willingly offer $50 to $60 for a desiccated, disintegrating souvenir cigar with Woodrow Wilson's picture on the band. They barely blink at the $19,800 paid for a rare John W. Davis button, even as they jovially concede that he is one of the most obscure presidential candidates of the twentieth century. They eagerly fork over more than $1,450 for an unusual, 1 3/4-inch button for the cigar chomping Happy Warrior, Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic candidate who went down to defeat at the hands of Herbert Hoover. And they revel in a monthly newsletter with such riveting front-page headlines as "Sam Tilden: The President Who Never Served," "Benjamin Harrison's March Toward the Presidency" and "Who Was Henry George and Why Haven't You Been Collecting His Memorabilia?"
To those who a veteran collector once affectionately dubbed the junk men of history, the admirable attributes and dignified visages of long-gone (and often long-forgotten) political candidates remain eternally appealing; the issues they advocated--or avoided--remain forever fresh. All are preserved in the astonishingly diverse, wildly colorful assortment of gimcracks created to ballyhoo their cause. And while it may prove small consolation to either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, should defeat be his lot in November, history has shown that the remnants of a losing candidate's crusade almost always are worth more to collectors.
There are more of these collectors now than ever before. Until recent years, political item collecting remained largely the province of the shoebox-and-dresser-drawer brigade, a small, dedicated band of campaign junkies and American history buffs who stashed their treasures in humble containers and swapped them as frequently as they bought or sold them. American Political Items Collectors (APIC), the national organization of campaign memorabilia aficionados, was founded by five such devotees in 1945, but by 1959 it had only 75 members. As recently as the 1970s, it was easy to walk into any local presidential campaign headquarters and find large bowls full of buttons, free for the taking.
All that changed dramatically in 1981, when two determined and deep-pocketed collectors set their sights on a particularly rare celluloid pin-back button up for auction and turned the political memorabilia world on its ear. The bidders were Joseph M. Jacobs, a prominent labor lawyer in Chicago who had the largest collection of Franklin D. Roosevelt items ever assembled, and publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes Jr., also known as Steve, this year's flat-tax presidential candidate (and now a face on his own collectible campaign buttons).
The object of their quest was a 1 1/4-inch button bearing the portraits of the 1920 Democratic presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. James M. Cox, and his young vice presidential running mate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose electoral record at the time was scant but whose name and smile were already magnetic. Only eight varieties of such Cox/Roosevelt paired-portrait buttons (called "jugates" by collectors) are known to exist, and the button Jacobs and Forbes coveted is the only known one of that design. When the auction dust settled, Jacobs had what he called the "capstone" of his 40,000-piece Roosevelt collection--at a cost of $33,000.
Jacobs liked to say that his victory represented a triumph of labor over capital, but it also heralded a heightened respectability for political item collecting, putting it on a par with the collecting of coins and stamps. An explosion of interest in the hobby ensued. Now, hundreds of new members join APIC each year. Today it has more than 3,200 members throughout the world, many of them attorneys, doctors and other professionals; over 30 specialty chapters devoted to particular candidates or regions; a monthly newspaper, The Political Bandwagon; a thrice-yearly magazine, The Keynoter, and dozens of regional meetings annually. A variety of mail-order auctions are held each year, and private sales thrive.
To those who haunt flea markets, rummage sales and other venues for button-gatherers, part of the hobby's appeal is its continuing unpredictability, even as every supposed source is explored. Button collecting is "America's last great treasure hunt," says Robert A. Fratkin, a McLean, Virginia-based Smith Barney stockbroker and former president of APIC, whose button collection is worth more than $1 million.
Unlike coins and stamps, most of which were produced by government agencies that kept a strict accounting of numbers and varieties made, button manufacturers have always been a free-wheeling, sometimes fly-by-night lot. Button collectors "don't know everything that's out there still in attics or flea markets or estates," says Fratkin, a collector since 1961. "I've seen dozens of items over the years that I didn't even know existed."
What button mavens collect are pieces of the nation's history--though often made of the humblest materials. All political memorabilia collectors quickly learn that campaign or promotional paraphernalia associated with American presidential contests is as old as the office itself. Prior to George Washington's first inauguration in 1789, enterprising entrepreneurs struck and sold more than 40 varieties of pewter, brass or copper clothing buttons commemorating the event, some inscribed with Washington's initials, those of the original 13 states of the Union and the exclamation: "Long Live the President!"
Ever since, an extraordinary, seemingly endless array of objects have been used to promote Washington's successors--including celebratory cigars featuring a candidate's name and picture on the box and band.
Leading the pack of political artifacts are the most ubiquitous of all campaign devices, the pin-back celluloid button, which burst upon the political scene in 1896 and is celebrating its centennial this year. (A later innovation, lithographic pin-backs, first appeared in 1920.)
Old presidential buttons can range in size from a petite 5/8 of an inch in diameter to a ponderous 10 inches. Many come in bright, vibrant colors; still more in basic reds, whites and blues; some in stark blacks and whites. They present a captivating, kaleidoscopic parade of candidates and causes. In them you can see perennial office seekers age, going from youthful, square-jawed crusaders to veteran, jowly contestants. William Jennings Bryan, hailed as the curly-haired "Boy Orator of the Platte" in 1896, became the bald, paunchy "Great Commoner" of 1908; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the "Gallant Leader" of the Great Depression, became the paternal commander-in-chief during the Second World War; an impossibly youthful John F. Kennedy was proudly "presented by New England" as a vice presidential possibility in 1956--and mourned as a martyred president in 1963; the emphatic "Nixon's the One!" slogan of 1968 came back to haunt the Watergate-embattled chief executive, who was forced to resign six years later. Presidential buttons can even link the generations: a 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower "Time for a Change" button, featuring a cartoon baby with "I Like Ike" on his diaper, perhaps foreshadowed the kindergarten photo of Bill Clinton that his Baby Boomer supporters gleefully identified with and wore in 1992.
In the decade and a half since the epic auction battle of Jacobs and Forbes, collecting campaign buttons and other political items has become a major recreational activity; prices for exceedingly rare pieces now can spiral into the $20,000 to $50,000 range. Another Cox/Roosevelt jugate, different in design than the one for which Jacobs and Forbes vied, went for $49,700 in 1991; yet another fetched $36,000 in a 1994 auction. (A 1916 button for Republicans Charles Evans Hughes and Charles Fairbanks went under the gavel for $22,500 in 1993--making it probably the most valuable button other than a Cox/Roosevelt jugate.)
Fortunately for the average collector, most buttons and other presidential campaign materials remain far more modestly priced. Perfectly respectable Teddy Roosevelt items can be had for as little as $25 or $35. Consequently, the acquisition of political Americana has become an increasingly popular specialty even for people who find modern campaigns mean-spirited and meaningless. Eagerly absorbing American political history along with present-day maneuverings, political item collectors love to play the "futures" market, trying to guess which current politico's paraphernalia will be hot in the future. In the process, they learn that campaign etiquette really wasn't a whole lot better back in the "good old days."
For example, if you're outraged by the often frivolous content of today's presidential campaigns, don't necessarily direct your ire at Clinton or Dole; instead, blame William Henry Harrison and the Whigs.
In 1840, the Whig party nominated Harrison, an aging general best known for his victory in 1811 against the Indian warrior Tecumseh in the battle of Tippecanoe, to oppose incumbent President Martin Van Buren. Harrison, who had been defeated by Van Buren four years earlier, kept his mouth shut (as was common for presidential candidates then) and seemed content to have the Whigs offer virtually no substantive proposals for voters to consider. What they offered instead was hoopla--and Harrison won handily.
Employing one of the most euphonious slogans in American political history, "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" (Tyler being John Tyler, Harrison's running mate, a renegade Democrat from Virginia), the Whigs got their chief emblems for an unprecedented profusion of promotional items by capitalizing on a blunder by their opponents. The Baltimore Republican newspaper sought to dismiss Harrison by publishing what it thought was a withering put-down: "Give him a barrel of hard cider and a pension of two thousand a year and...he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin...and study moral philosophy."
Canny Whig tacticians seized on the supposed slur, recognizing the popular appeal of the hard-cider-and-log-cabin image of a humble hero. They made it the centerpiece of their campaign, transforming Harrison, actually a wealthy man with a substantial home on 2,000 acres in North Bend, Ohio, into an impecunious farmer called from his plow at the behest of the people. They realized, as one Whig conceded, "that passion and prejudice, properly aroused and directed, would do about as well as principle and reason in a party contest."
So it has often been since. As Keith Melder, curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, noted in his 1992 book, Hail to the Candidate: Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcasts, the Whigs of 1840 launched "the first American national advertising campaign of any kind," using an incredible array of materials to promote Harrison's candidacy. Among these were more than 50 versions of "medalets," coin-like pieces featuring Harrison's portrait and slogans, and more than 150 varieties of lapel ribbons, most of them embellished with little log cabins and hard cider barrels.
The Whigs, whatever their failings, pioneered the techniques of slick party organization common today and did much to popularize presidential campaigns, which largely had been the province of the elite. The immense amount of artifacts left behind by the campaign for Harrison served as a sort of seedbed for all of the engaging electioneering gizmos that have followed.
Few things have not been employed as campaigning items: mugs, mirrors, pitchers, pennants, plates, playing cards, puzzles, glassware, walking sticks, board games, pens, pencils, razors, lighters, license plates, watches, jewelry, nail files, bandannas, umbrellas and, of course, buttons. Each category of collectible has its own devotees, but buttons probably have the most adherents.
Buttons were "the most prevalent and popular of all campaign paraphernalia," Melder wrote, until television began vacuuming up practically all the money now being spent to promote presidential candidates. He complained that a buttonless electorate, glued to the tube, is less personally involved in today's campaigns, and democracy has suffered because of it.
The invention of photography enabled promoters to put a candidate's actual likeness (rather than an engraved portrait) on items, beginning in 1848 with the campaign between Zachary Taylor, another former general nominated by the Whigs, and his Democratic opponent, Lewis Cass. The immediate precursors of modern buttons, these ferrotypes--tintype photos encased in brass frames--are credited by some scholars with making the homely but honest face of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois easily recognizable to voters elsewhere.
The creation of the modern pin-back button came about with the invention of celluloid, an early form of plastic, around 1870, plus advances in printing and other manufacturing methods. The original pin-backs were simple devices, featuring a thin metal disk, a piece of paper printed with a candidate's name and picture, a clear piece of celluloid to protect the paper, and a metal ring that held everything together. A pin was inserted in the back, under the edge of the ring.
Shortly after Amanda M. Lougee of Boston perfected the pin-back button in 1893, the Whitehead and Hoag Co. of New Jersey, printers of advertising novelties, acquired the patent for the pin-back. With its sharp marketing savvy, Whitehead and Hoag helped pin-back buttons become the rage of the 1896 campaign between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. With more than 1,000 varieties of buttons churned out by Whitehead and Hoag and other firms for the McKinley and Bryan forces, pin-backs established themselves as key electioneering accoutrements, a status they retain to this day as a fund-raising device.
The appeal of buttons was obvious and enormous: they cost little to make and gave the party's legions a bright, colorful and effective means for promoting the candidate's name, face and ideas. In the ensuing decades and campaigns, dozens of manufacturers of advertising novelties made millions of buttons for innumerable candidates--whose followers often would later squirrel them away in dresser drawers, old shoe boxes, basements and attics.
There have always been collectors of presidential campaign paraphernalia; otherwise, the George Washington coat buttons, James Monroe crockery, Franklin Pierce lapel ribbons and similar relics associated with every president of the United States would not have survived to entice hobbyists today. The Smithsonian received its first gift of electioneering items in 1884.
The first comprehensive chronicle of political Americana was not compiled, however, until 1974, when Theodore Hake, an expert in collectibles of all sorts, published his landmark Encyclopedia of Political Buttons. The book established campaign memorabilia as a major area for collectors to pursue, says Albert Salter, a retired advertising executive who reports on the ups and downs of the political Americana auction market for APIC's newsletter, The Political Bandwagon.
Hake also issued several price guides for political buttons, but the most recent, published in 1991, is hard to find even in paperback and now is five years out of date. Salter notes that the best "price guides" are the catalogs prepared by the top five or six auctioneers of political memorabilia. These catalogs--and their subsequent accounts of the prices paid for items sold--serve as the most accurate yardsticks of the political memorabilia market.
As interest in antique political memorabilia grew, so did the appearances of what hobbyists call "brummagem," or reproductions of buttons and other items that are passed off as originals. APIC was instrumental in ensuring passage of the federal Hobby Protection Act of 1973, under which the Federal Trade Commission has issued regulations requiring that imitation political items, including buttons, posters, stickers, literature or advertisements, be marked with the year of manufacture. Imitation numismatic items, including any coin, token, commemorative medal or paper money, must be marked with the word "COPY."
Perhaps the most spectacular legal case to involve antique political buttons didn't deal with phony pin-backs but plain old mail fraud and a bogus insurance claim, with an especially rare, tell-tale button sealing the defendant's fate.
According to court records, Edward Sinker, a 39-year-old Syracuse, New York, attorney and button collector, claimed that his 2,200-item collection, valued at $76,097, had been stolen while he was at a political button show in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in July 1990. He filed a claim with Allstate Insurance Co. and was fully reimbursed. Among the items Sinker said he had lost was an extremely unusual 1916 Charles Evans Hughes button worth $5,000. It featured a photo of Hughes (the last major party presidential candidate to sport a beard), along with the words: "Undiluted Americanism, Hughes for president." Only three examples of this particular Hughes button are known to exist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles E. Roberts told the court.
Sinker might have gotten away with his scam had he not succumbed to a common penchant of button collectors: he liked to show off his treasures. In October 1992, at the height of the Bush-Clinton race, Sinker went on WKTV in Utica, New York, to display his splendid assortment of antique buttons--two years after he claimed they had been stolen.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry. FBI agents went to Sinker's home in December 1992 and recovered 3,700 buttons. Sinker contended that after his collection had been stolen, he had replaced it, button for button, by going to garage sales, antique dealers and a museum of Americana. Unfortunately for him, however, one of the items recovered by the FBI agents was that spectacular, one-of-only-three Hughes button. Scientific tests showed that it bore the marks and defects unique to the one Sinker claimed had been stolen, according to court evidence. Similar meticulous examinations of eight or nine other buttons showed them to be among those Sinker said he had lost to thieves. A jury convicted Sinker of mail fraud and U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. sentenced him to four months in prison, four months of home detention and three years of supervised release. The judge also ordered restitution to Allstate of $76,097 and imposed an additional $15,000 fine and 250 hours of community service.
That a Charles Evans Hughes button should form the crux of amail fraud case--and be worth so much--merely emphasizes a special peculiarity of political memorabilia collectors: they love losers. In general, the artifacts of losing campaigns are less plentiful, since the campaigns themselves didn't have as much to spend on promotional items--and disappointed supporters tended to toss what had been made into the post-election day trash.