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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 2)

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.

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