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Pinning Down the Candidates

The Collecting of Campaign Buttons Has Become "America's Last Great Treasure Hunt"
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

For collectors of political memorabilia, the campaigns never end, the glory never fades.

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!"

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