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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

(continued from page 1)

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.


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