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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 5)

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.


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