The Collecting of Campaign Buttons Has Become "America's Last Great Treasure Hunt"
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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.
The chief exception to the losers-as-winners rule is Harry Truman, whose come-from-behind 1948 victory over New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey is considered the political upset of all time. Today, Truman buttons remain more popular, harder to find and more expensive than Dewey buttons. In 1991, a rare button featuring the names of Truman, his running mate, Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley, and a cartoon Democratic donkey sold for $787; its identically designed "mate," featuring the names of Dewey, his vice presidential pick, then-California Gov. Earl Warren, and a Republican elephant, sold for just $20.
"Truman didn't have much money to spend in 1948, and what money he did have he spent on that whistle-stop campaign," says Geary Vlk (pronounced Velk), a Chicago computer programmer and former president of APIC. "There are some 10 to 12 common Truman buttons, but the rest are extremely rare. And there are a lot of people out there who really love Harry Truman."
In addition to having a preference for Truman, today's campaign button collectors seem to fall into three distinct groups, says Salter, basing his assessment on the auctions he follows and the gatherings he attends.
"First there are the elite, one-piece-at-a-time heavy investor," says Salter. "Then there are the experienced collectors who specialize in a particular candidate or category and are willing to pay a good, but not astronomical, price to enrich their collections; finally there are the newer, often younger collectors, interested in those campaigns and issues that are part of their own time."
Salter notes that Al Anderson of Troy, Ohio, who manages one of the hobby's most popular mail-order auction operations, has observed an intensification of interest in post-Second World War campaign memorabilia:
"A whole new generation has moved into the hobby," Salter says. "Those of us who started, say, 25 or 30 years ago may think of [Jimmy] Carter and [suddenly realize], my God, it was 20 years ago that Carter was running. And, all of a sudden, our older generation wakes up to the fact that you go back to 1960, and a person has to be approaching 40 to remember Kennedy. Those things, I think, are starting to grab hold. In other words, the earliest memory I may have, because I'm 70 years old, is of Hoover or Roosevelt, so those [items] will still be attractive to me because it's part of my memory. But from Kennedy on, you've got a whole new generation of collectors."
Anderson and others who detect this trend have concluded that campaigns since the Second World War are part of the memory of many collectors who became interested in politics at an early age. When one considers the depressed prices of pre-1896 political items, that theory seems to hold water. Another reason for the sharp increases in later material may be that collectors, sensing the bull market in early twentieth century pieces, may be doing some purchasing of recent material as an investment for the next generation. "Today it's difficult to sort collectors from investors," Anderson notes. "More and more, buyers wear both hats."
With respect to the much lower price tags on many pre-1896 political items, David J. Frent, an auctioneer, collector and authority on campaign memorabilia, is astonished at how "undervalued" such pieces of "pure Americana" are. "When you can purchase something from the William Henry Harrison campaign of 1840--something more than 150 years old--for under $150, it's amazing," Frent says. A fine 1864 ferrotype featuring photos of Abraham Lincoln and his vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, fetched just $880 at a 1994 auction. At an auction this past February, a George Washington clothing button bearing his initials and the original shank sold for just $950, plus a 10 percent buyer's fee.
"All pre-1896 pieces, before the celluloid era, are not pricey at all compared to other fields, such as autographs, which have gone up tremendously in the past 10 years," Frent adds. "I think the key is that the earlier pieces require a lot of study, understanding, sophistication and dedication. Buttons are more graphic--and easier to store."
Frent cautions new or would-be collectors not to look upon campaign buttons as a way to make big bucks. "If you are looking at this strictly as an investment, it isn't," he says. "It doesn't have a lot of liquidity. A $50,000 coin you can sell in minutes; a valuable button you can't." He suggests collecting for the joy of it. "If you collect what you like, with taste and from reputable dealers, the chances are it will increase in value over time."
In the past few years, major collections, such as those of Steve Forbes' vanquisher, Joseph Jacobs (who died in December 1995), have been put on the auction block. In 1987, the one-of-a-kind Cox/Roosevelt button over which both men had battled was sold along with Jacobs' other 1920 Cox/Roosevelt jugates to Cox Enterprises, the now-mighty multimedia firm to which Cox devoted his energies after he was drubbed at the polls by Warren G. Harding. (Robert Fratkin, who arranged the sale to Cox Enterprises, says the company got the buttons for an undisclosed "bargain price," considering the subsequent rise in their value. The buttons are kept at Cox's corporate headquarters in Atlanta and are not on public display.)
The dispersal of mammoth collections that took years to assemble has meant that remarkable items suddenly became available to hobbyists. This has helped to fuel the frenzy over buttons and drive up their prices. According to Salter, although other significant collections will continue to appear in auction catalogs, he believes that a plateau has been reached for celluloid items and therefore prices may not rise as rapidly in the future.
Among perennial best-sellers, however, are any unusual items featuring the Kennedys ("They live in a world of their own," says Salter), Theodore Roosevelt and some of the rarer buttons from more recent elections. A nondescript but elusive Gerald Ford button with a yellow background and simple black lettering saying "Missourians for Ford" recently sold for $1,338, making it the first Ford item to top $1,000. A colorful Carter/Mondale button fetched $1,254 in 1994, and even George McGovern, buried in Richard Nixon's 1972 reelection landslide, has experienced a gratifying comeback on the button trail. A Peter Max-designed McGovern button regularly commands $375 to $400, and a popular piece depicting the South Dakota Democrat as Robin Hood continues rising in value, from $139 in 1992 to $169 in 1994.
"What I value even more than the rise in the price of those old buttons is that a recent book on campaign memorabilia had more McGovern buttons pictured in it than any other candidate's," the former senator said in an April interview. "That is further testament to the grassroots nature of my campaign.
"But I'm glad to see the value of the buttons rise. It's a minor compliment--but not an insignificant one," McGovern added with a grin.
McGovern, now president of the Middle East Policy Council, a nonprofit educational organization, also acknowledged that he is a cigar smoker, as were some other well-known (and not so well-known) individuals depicted on presidential campaign memorabilia--Presidents U.S. Grant, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley; Woodrow Wilson's vice president, Thomas R. Marshall (best remembered for having declared during a tedious Senate debate over which he was presiding, "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar"); the ebullient Alfred E. Smith; FDR's first vice president, John Nance Garner; and, of course, John F. Kennedy.
"I like those Churchill-size cigars, mostly Jamaican," McGovern said. "I also like Cuban cigars--the Montecristo--which is one reason I'm against this embargo!"
Buttons used to be a high priority in every presidential campaign's budget, with even the candidates themselves involved in their production. Letters in the archives of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, show that when he had the vice presidential slot on the 1920 ticket (opposing Warren G. Harding's running mate, Calvin Coolidge), FDR was contacted directly by the St. Louis Button Co., a major button manufacturer, which pleaded for his photograph so it could produce a paired-portrait button of him and James M. Cox.
"We have on hand orders for thousands of these buttons and cannot fill them until we have your picture," the company wrote. "Governor Cox has supplied us with his picture, also Senator Harding and Governor Coolidge, and we are badly in need of your picture to be used on buttons to show portraits of the candidates for President and Vice President on the Democratic ticket. Your prompt attention to this request will be very much appreciated."
Roosevelt made sure the St. Louis Button Co. got his picture--and the Cox/Roosevelt jugate buttons it made are now worth some $20,000 apiece.
Near the end of the 1920 campaign, Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Democratic National Committee's publicity bureau, imploring them to send him buttons. "Starting with New Jersey on Wednesday, we are headed out on a long Western trip, and I am throwing myself on your mercy.... We need thousands of buttons--not those damn 'Coxsure buttons'--but both the other two kinds. This is one of the best ways in the World to get them to individuals, and I wish you would give us a plentiful supply, as they cry for them everywhere we go."
FDR's reference to "the other two kinds" of buttons probably was to the small lithographed Cox/Roosevelt buttons simply bearing their names. These were a mainstay of the campaign, given away for free--and they now fetch between $40 and $65 each. Today's collectors confirm Roosevelt's disdain for those "damn Coxsure" buttons, which generally command only about $35.
Today, the national party organizations practically ignore buttons, spending only "pennies" on them, says Mort Berkowitz, 57, owner of Bold Concepts, a special events company in New York that handles Earth Day celebrations and large and small local festivals--and supplies buttons to political campaigns.
"Politics has become very local, so local headquarters buy buttons," Berkowitz says. "They then sell them as fund-raisers. These are political clubs that every weekend have tables outside, loaded with buttons. It used to be, as a kid, I could go into a headquarters and walk off with buttons. Now you have to buy them."
The economics of button making and selling are "a much higher proportion" of a local campaign organization's budget, Berkowitz says. "I'm talking about in a city like New York, where there are [at least] 20 to 30 different Democratic clubs that are really pushing and promoting the Clinton-Gore ticket. They're not spending money on advertising, right? Their money goes for literature, postage. And how do they fund that? They fund that by the sale of buttons and bumper stickers."
Tales abound of recent threadbare presidential campaign operations that received crucial support through button sales. The Wisconsin coordinator for former Sen. Gary Hart's ill-fated and underfinanced 1984 presidential bid sold Hart buttons to collectors in the United States, Canada and England to supplement his meager salary from campaign headquarters. In 1991, supporters of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerry used the proceeds from the sale of $3 "Run Bob Run" buttons to convince him to seek the 1992 presidential nomination. During the preliminary skirmishes of that campaign, the organizations backing Bill Clinton and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin sold their buttons directly to the public for $2 apiece, while former California Gov. Jerry Brown requested donations in return for his buttons.
Although up to 30 companies nationwide are in the political button business, "there are no button companies that can survive [solely from] their political button sales," says Berkowitz. "There used to be a half-dozen button companies in New York. They're down to one"--the venerable N.G. Slater Co. "Rents are too high. It's tough to collect from political officials. I mean, if they lose, and you had not collected in advance--good-bye."
Button designers and manufacturers today turn out an immense variety of designs and slogans, Berkowitz says, but "the beautiful, turn-of-the-century [style] buttons, none of these guys can do anymore. Those brilliant golds, almost like gold lamé, of the turn of the century on [such items as] Teddy Roosevelts and McKinleys...it's all unfortunately a thing of the past."
Still thriving in the button business, however, is entrepreneurial enterprise. Berkowitz recalled attending the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans and briefly flattening the competition after George Bush surprised everyone by picking Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate.
"The next day we had a company down there turning out buttons--but turning them out one-by-one, because, you know, they didn't have high-powered machinery," Berkowitz says with a chuckle. "But they were knocking them out. So for a couple of days, theirs were the only--the only--Quayle buttons to be found."
Some political temperature takers still view buttons as a barometer of a candidate's possible fortunes. In July 1991, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette used Berkowitz's sellout of his first run of 1,000 Bill Clinton buttons as an indication that Clinton was "leading the pack of potential Democratic presidential candidates." The paper then kept a running tab on the sale of Clinton buttons at Political Americana, a store in Washington, D.C., that markets political memorabilia. And The Washington Post reported last March that Political Americana's informal button sales poll had Bob Dole leading his competitors with a 28 percent tally, followed by Patrick Buchanan with 21 percent, Steve Forbes with 15 percent and Lamar Alexander with a scant 10 percent.
What continues to astonish veteran campaign button collectors, however, is the soaring prices for Bill Clinton items, both of the presidential and pre-presidential varieties. A "Clinton for Congress" button sold for $139 in June 1993 and then hit $250 the following November; a rare button proclaiming "I'm an Arkansas Traveler for President Bill Clinton, October 3, 1991-November 3, 1992," estimated to be worth $250, sold for a whopping $770 in November 1993; a "Letter Carriers for Clinton/Gore," estimated at $15, fetched $215 in May 1995.