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!"
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.
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.
As interest in antique political memorabilia grew, so did the appearances of what hobbyists call "brummagem," or reproductions of buttons and other items that are passed off as originals. APIC was instrumental in ensuring passage of the federal Hobby Protection Act of 1973, under which the Federal Trade Commission has issued regulations requiring that imitation political items, including buttons, posters, stickers, literature or advertisements, be marked with the year of manufacture. Imitation numismatic items, including any coin, token, commemorative medal or paper money, must be marked with the word "COPY."
Perhaps the most spectacular legal case to involve antique political buttons didn't deal with phony pin-backs but plain old mail fraud and a bogus insurance claim, with an especially rare, tell-tale button sealing the defendant's fate.
According to court records, Edward Sinker, a 39-year-old Syracuse, New York, attorney and button collector, claimed that his 2,200-item collection, valued at $76,097, had been stolen while he was at a political button show in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in July 1990. He filed a claim with Allstate Insurance Co. and was fully reimbursed. Among the items Sinker said he had lost was an extremely unusual 1916 Charles Evans Hughes button worth $5,000. It featured a photo of Hughes (the last major party presidential candidate to sport a beard), along with the words: "Undiluted Americanism, Hughes for president." Only three examples of this particular Hughes button are known to exist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles E. Roberts told the court.
Sinker might have gotten away with his scam had he not succumbed to a common penchant of button collectors: he liked to show off his treasures. In October 1992, at the height of the Bush-Clinton race, Sinker went on WKTV in Utica, New York, to display his splendid assortment of antique buttons--two years after he claimed they had been stolen.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry. FBI agents went to Sinker's home in December 1992 and recovered 3,700 buttons. Sinker contended that after his collection had been stolen, he had replaced it, button for button, by going to garage sales, antique dealers and a museum of Americana. Unfortunately for him, however, one of the items recovered by the FBI agents was that spectacular, one-of-only-three Hughes button. Scientific tests showed that it bore the marks and defects unique to the one Sinker claimed had been stolen, according to court evidence. Similar meticulous examinations of eight or nine other buttons showed them to be among those Sinker said he had lost to thieves. A jury convicted Sinker of mail fraud and U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. sentenced him to four months in prison, four months of home detention and three years of supervised release. The judge also ordered restitution to Allstate of $76,097 and imposed an additional $15,000 fine and 250 hours of community service.
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.
"I don't understand this investing in futures," says auction expert Al Salter. "I don't remember any Bush, Reagan or Carter buttons reaching those heights the first year after their election." Bush items, he notes, still haven't increased that much in value.
Clinton supporters should not necessarily crow over the surge in prices for their candidate's buttons. It could prove to be an evil omen, since "investing in futures" for button collectors might mean they are indicating their preference for a potential loser. In a November 1992 auction, Bush items attracted more bidders than any other grouping--perhaps a harbinger of his eventual defeat.
Although buttons remain vitally important to political groupies and collectors, some observers fear that television attack ads, campaign videotapes, 800 numbers and other forms of electronic electioneering have shunted the pin-back button aside. This year, for the first time, presidential candidates have even gone on the Internet. Pioneering political memorabilia collector Ralph E. Becker, whose mammoth horde of campaign paraphernalia formed the core of the Smithsonian Institution's 100,000-item collection, lamented in Hail to the Candidate: "Posterity is the loser in this new game of political campaigning."
There are those at the University of Oklahoma who might disagree. There, the Political Commercial Archive was established in 1985 by Julian Kanter, a former general manager of television stations in New York and Florida, who began collecting political TV and radio ads in 1956. Today, the archive contains the tapes of more than 55,000 political commercials, all housed in a brick storeroom chilled to 55 degrees to help preserve them.
Yet no matter how hard-hitting, funny or effective a TV or radio spot may be, you cannot hold a sound bite in your hand. You cannot marvel at how it has escaped the ravages of time, wonder about whose lapel or blouse it once adorned or ponder the devotion it inspired. You can only do that with a button.
Neil Grauer is a Baltimore writer and the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press). Pushing The Right Buttons
American Political Items Collectors (APIC), the national organization for fans of every sort of electioneering doodad, offers a broad range of advice about how to avoid being burned when button hunting. Among the tips:
* Take time to learn about the field, especially about the reproductions--dubbed "brummagem"--that are worth nothing but often pop up in flea markets, collectibles shops, antique shows and even auctions. Books about collecting political Americana are a good source of information, as are experienced collectors.
* Minor flaws (such as an off-center design) or damage (such as fading, nicks or cracks in the celluloid, or splotches of brownish discoloration called "foxing") can dramatically reduce the value of a button.
* Rarity also is a key to value. Some buttons, worth a great deal in a rare size, are worth far less in more common dimensions, even if the design is identical.
* To get a feel for the price range of various buttons, become familiar with useful indicators, such as advertisements for items in such publications as APIC's monthly newspaper, The Political Bandwagon; the prices put on items for sale at collectors' meetings; the prices obtained at APIC meetings and conventions; and the prices obtained in mail and phone auctions. Even among experienced collectors, price estimates vary. It can be a volatile hobby.
* Almost all fakes of antique celluloid buttons are actually acetate-covered. Acetate, developed in the late 1930s, has been used nearly exclusively by button makers since 1952. To check, use an incandescent light and tilt the button so the light is reflected off the surface to your eyes. Celluloid has an irregular surface and absorbs light; acetate is almost 100 percent light-reflective.
* New fakes rarely feature old pins. The difference between
an old pin and a new one is obvious.
* There were no presidential pin-back buttons prior to 1896, celluloid or lithograph.
* The problem of fakes should not be exaggerated. In 99 out of 100 cases, items have not been reproduced, and most reproductions that do exist are of commonplace buttons. High-profile, extremely valuable buttons are rarely faked, since experts would examine them too closely. Usually reproductions were made as commemorative items, often as an advertising gimmick, without any intention to deceive.
Mail auctions are a main source for political
Americana. Among the leading ones:
P. O. Box 644, Troy, Ohio 45373
phone: 513/339-0850, fax: 513/339-8620
Subscription rate (U.S.): $20 for three issues of catalog,
$37.50 for six issues; overseas: $30 for three issues
P.O. Box 348, Leola, Pennsylvania 17540
phone: 717/656-7780, fax: 717/656-8233
C. Wesley Cowan
747 Park Avenue, Terrace Park, Ohio 45174
phone: 513/248-8122, fax: 513/248-2566
Subscription rate: $30 for three catalogs; sample, $12
P.O. Box 65360, Tucson, Arizona 85728
phone: 520/577-8302, fax: 520/577-8674
Auctions held as material becomes available. Fully illustrated
catalog for October 1996 auction, $7. Sales list of less expensive ($1 to $10) beginner items available for $1
David J. Frent
P.O. Box 455, Oakhurst, New Jersey 07755
phone: 908/922-0768, fax: 908/922-6488
Subscription rate: $12 for three catalogs; sample, $4
Theodore Hake, Hake's Americana
(Dept. 269), P.O. Box 1444, York, Pennsylvania 17405
phone: 717/848-1333, fax: 717/852-0344
$7.50 for catalog (contains items other than political pieces)
Tom Slater, The Political Gallery
5335 North Takoma Avenue, Indianapolis, Indiana 46220
Subscription rate: $20 for four catalogs; sample, $5
P.O. Box 49271, Austin, Texas 78765
phone: 512/451-8122, fax: 512/451-6973
Subscription rate: $12 for four catalogs; sample, $3
Collecting Political Americana
by Edmund Sullivan
(second edition, 1991) Christopher Publishing House,
24 Rockland Street, Hanover, Massachusetts 02339
Phone: 617/826-7474. $40 plus postage.
Hake's Guide to Presidential Campaign Collectibles:
An Illustrated Price Guide to Artifacts from 1789-1988
by Theodore Hake (1992)
Hake's Americana and Collectibles,
P.O. Box 1444, York, Pennsylvania 17405
Phone: 717/848-1333. $21 postpaid.
Hake's Encyclopedia of Political Buttons,
a three-volume set cataloguing more
than 15,000 items, is $96 postpaid; 1991 price guide
(admittedly outdated) comes with set.
Hail to the Candidate:
Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcasts
by Keith E. Melder (1992)
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Phone: 1 800/782-4612. $24.95 (paperback)
Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,
editor; David Frent and Fred Israel, associate editors.
Two volumes, 1789-1992 (1993) Simon and Schuster.
Available from the LBJ Museum Store,
2313 Red River Street, Austin, Texas 78705
Phone: 1 800/874-6451. $195
American Political Items Collectors,
P.O. Box 340339, San Antonio, Texas 78234
(Joseph D. Hayes, secretary/treasurer.) $30 annual membershi dues includes subscription to monthly newspaper, The Political Bandwagon, and thrice-yearly magazine, The Keynoter. (If you have some buttons you wish to have appraised, APIC will do so for free if you send Xeroxed copies of the buttons and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Hayes.)
Museum Collections of Political Americana
The Smithsonian Institution,
National Museum of American History
Museum of American Political Life
Each presidential library, from Herbert Hoover's in West Branch, Iowa, through Ronald Reagan's in Simi Valley, California, has displays of campaign memorabilia. Other presidential homes an memorials, such as the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace in New York City, have displays of political Americana.
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