Political Americana: Treasured Trinkets

Collectible Political Memorabilia Goes Beyond Basic Buttons

Posted September 4, 2003 at 2:56pm

Once, during the Paleolithic age, ancient tribes carved primitive stone figurines in order to ensure fertility and bountiful years.

In 1896, William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan printed paper-label buttons covered in cellophane to ensure their election to the presidency (it worked for McKinley). With that a new totem was born: the modern campaign button, part of an ever-expanding world of collectible political trinkets.

The creation of political memorabilia started in earnest with President Andrew Jackson — though it really goes “back at least to George Washington’s inauguration, if not before,” according to Harry Rubenstein, a political history curator of the National Museum for American History.

Populist Jackson elevated swag to a new level in his re-election campaign of 1832. “That’s when you started seeing items mass-produced to give out to the public,” said Brian Krapf, president of the American Political Items Collectors. Old Hickory passed out “medals, tokens, sulphide images” and more — all sorts of genuine Americana, born from our very democratic system.

“Once you have an expanding electorate where the electorate is large enough that the people don’t have personal contact whom they’re voting for, then you need to start having this mechanism for party building, and promotion of a candidate,” explained Rubenstein.

Anyone seeking to accept the nomination of a political party is likely to leave behind a trail of buttons, posters, coffee mugs, hats and other assorted campaign paraphernalia — but collector interest centers mainly on presidential campaigns. “There’s less interest in the Senate and Congressional stuff,” according to Nelson Whitman, owner of Capitol Coin and Stamp in Washington, D.C.

When Members reach for higher office there’s often retroactive interest in earlier campaigns — collectors call it “early career material” — but otherwise Congressional campaign memorabilia typically forms part of a larger collection dedicated to entire states, political movements or parties.

And despite a glut of Democratic presidential hopefuls this year holding seats in Congress, there’s no rush to find, for example, “Joe Lieberman for Attorney General” material. Early-career interest peaks around the eventual nominee, said Larry Krug, a former APIC president.

Say “political memorabilia” and most people will think of political buttons and posters — and most political hobbyists do devote large chunks of their collections to those items. But the tchotchkes run the gamut of almost any conceivable item that can sport a candidate’s name and face.

“There’s what they call 3-D items, which would be items made out of china or glass. Coffee mugs, that kind of thing,” said Whitman. Oh, and top hats.

“The candidate’s image is in the inside of the hat. So when you tip your hat, you would show inside of the hat who you were voting for,” Krapf said. The hats weren’t fancy, however — made of felt, not silk — and Rubenstein said they were mostly used during the late 1800s for parades leading up to elections.

Walking into campaign headquarters was once like going into a gift shop, Rubenstein said. “There’d be cigarette packs with the candidate’s face on it, dolls and clothing.” Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 came up with bottles of “Gold Water.” Not to be outdone, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign sold “Johnson Juice.” Today a can of the latter will run $25, while “You can pick up a Barry Goldwater can for six or seven bucks,” Krug said.

National parties today have mostly stopped investing in trinkets, instead plowing almost every dollar into mass-media ads. “There used to be a desire to have everybody that possibly could to be wearing your candidate’s button. That sort of strong push hasn’t happened for a while,” Rubenstein said. The last hurrah may have been President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972.

“There’s just tons of them, ‘Nixon’s The One.’ However, after that, most of the money went right into television,” said Mort Berkowitz, a political button manufacturer in New York (see related story).

Still, memorabilia will never entirely disappear. “People still want the campaign button so they can declare that they’re for this candidate,” Rubenstein said. On a local level, the tradition of handing out items — most likely pens, pencils or keychains these days — survives. “In some ways it exists there today more strongly because those candidates can’t afford mass media,” Rubenstein added.

But for collectors, the money is definitely on the presidential races. Rare buttons can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. One of the most rare and sought-after — and definitely one of the most expensive — buttons is a James Cox-Franklin D. Roosevelt jugate from the 1920 presidential election, which can cost more than $40,000. “The reason being is that the Democratic Party didn’t have much money and they didn’t put a lot of money into advertising or producing political material,” Krapf said. A jugate is a button with a picture of both the presidential and veep candidates on it.

“I’ve been collecting for 30 years and I’ll never have a Cox-Roosevelt button. It just doesn’t fit my budget,” lamented Krug.

Krapf said there’s another reason that particular jugate is rare. “Cox, strange as it sounds, had a phobia of having his picture taken, because he had a big nose.”

In contrast, a vintage “I Like Ike” button will probably never be worth much. “You can’t go into an antique store or a flea market” without finding one, Krug said.

Krug doesn’t enjoy emphasizing the dollar value of memorabilia, however. “You need to collect just for your own enjoyment. That’s got to be the key issue,” he said. “We really do consider ourselves more than collectors, we consider ourselves preservers of Americana, which is part of our history.”

Not that buttons don’t sometimes dramatically shoot up in value. A rare Al Gore button from the 2000 presidential election now costs $100. “It’s got a photo of Barbra Streisand on it,” made to commemorate the celebratory concert following Gore’s nomination at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Krug said.

Krapf said he became attracted to collecting political material — “a subject near and dear to my heart,” he said — for the connection to the political process and to American history. He collects Georgia campaign material — lots of former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) stuff, as well as Jimmy Carter material. “I even have his state Senate material. You look at that and you can actually track his career.”

Krapf, like Krug, discounts the commercial aspects of collecting memorabilia. Online auctions such as eBay, he said, have “made material more accessible to collectors,” but “there is one thing about buying material, there’s another to being a member of an organized hobby and shared experience.”

Krapf encourages collectors to lend their stuff for local exhibits or to bring collections into classrooms. “History is being neglected in the elementary and the high schools. We’re doing our part as a national hobby to correct that trend,” he said.

It’s one thing to read about President Theodore Roosevelt, it’s another to have a campaign button, “see it up close and touch it and think that 100 years ago somebody wore this badge to support Teddy Roosevelt. It’s a really neat feeling,” Krapf said.