Campaign Buttons 2000: Pinback to the Future
By George Sommers
Seen anyone wearing a George W. Bush or Al Gore for president button lately? Probably not, because even this late in the campaign, nationally issued buttons are hard to come by. Not to mention that given the divisive nature of politics today, few people are willing to publicly commit themselves to a candidate. So much campaign, money gets shoveled into the bottomless pit of television advertising, that there’s precious little left over for anything else. Campaign buttons have not gone the way of the dinosaur. The new rules of turn-of-the-millennium American elections can be an advantage to political memorabilia collectors while drawing on the lessons of the past.
While nationally issued campaign buttons are scarce to nonexistent, local political committees often print up their own and sell them to raise funds. The more limited the edition, the more valuable a button is likely to be. Examples from this year’s candidate crop include a pinback pairing Al Gore with a candidate for Lowell, Massachusetts city council, a "Texans for Bush" and a "New Hampshire for Pat Buchanan". Drawing back on the past, my "Smithies for Carter" button—referring to Smith College and Jimmy Carter—has fellow collectors drooling.
A contemporary twist links candidates to the view millennium. "The REAL Y2K Problem—George W. Bush," declares one pinback. Conversely, "The Millennium Team" is a series teaming George W. Bush with an assortment of possible vice presidents.
It’s a fact of life that the candidate with the most money almost always wins. Less money means fewer buttons—unfortunate for the runner-up candidate, but a boon to collectors. The phenomenally unpopular 1920 Democratic team of James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt issued precious few buttons. Now, certain Cox/Roosevelt pinbacks are a virtual collectors’ Holy Grail. One of only eight known particular Cox/Roosevelt jugates (featuring both men’s faces) was the object of a bidding war between Steve Forbes and wealthy lawyer Joseph Jacobs. Jacobs eventually prevailed, happily shelling out $33,000 for his prize.
Harry S. Truman buttons are one exception to the "loser candidates make winner collectibles" rule. However, Thomas Dewey was expected to prevail right up to the end. Remember the famous newspaper headline "Dewey Defeats Truman"!
While some argue that negative campaigning is a recent phenomena, Robert Platt begs to differ. "In 1940, there were a hundred or more varieties of anti-Roosevelt buttons put out by Republicans supporting Willkie—slogans that were pretty risque, ‘No Man is Good 3 Times’, things of that nature." Dr. Platt is a former officer of both American Political Items Collectors and the Society of Political Items Enthusiasts. Trina Purcell, of the Library and Archives of New Hampshire’s Political Tradition adds, "FDR was like sushi—people either loved or hated him." One of the library’s buttons reads, "We Don’t Want Eleanor, Either".
Some of the hottest collectibles come from the Communists, Socialist Workers and other fringe parties lacking the deep pockets of the GOP and the Democrats. Then, of course, there are novelty candidates like comedian Pat Paulsen and the pro-marijuana Carolyn Killeen.
In this year’s election, the third party likes of Ralph Nader, Harry Browne and Pat Buchanan may rate a mere asterisk in the polls; but their memorabilia scores highly with collectors.
Conventional wisdom has it that the older the button, the more valuable it’s likely to be. It’s not that cut and dried. One 1992 Bill Clinton pinback sold for $770 in 1993; a mere year after it was originally issued.
Celluloid was invented around 1870, and first used for political buttons as we know them in the 1896 election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan.
"Buttons used to be an art form," declares Robert Platt. He describes the Golden Age of campaign buttons as roughly 1896 to the Franklin Roosevelt era. After that time, lithographic pinbacks came into play, using a manufacturing process in which the printed images are prone to rusting or scratching.
Reproductions, or "brummagem" are universally scorned by collectors. The federal Hobby Protection Act of 1973 requires that any such copies be labeled accordingly. The Act was largely the work of APIC and sympathetic legislators, often collectors themselves.
Also rearing their ugly heads are so-called vendor buttons in the last 20 or so years. Entrepreneurs sometimes manufacture and sell assorted buttons independently of campaigns. "Vendor buttons are seen by APIC as being valid if they were used by a campaign," points out Dr. Platt; adding, "It’s not unusual for a collector who’s interested in making some money to have a couple of thousand buttons printed and dole out a few to the local party." These buttons now become "rare and official"—the entrepreneur has himself a stash of future collectibles.
Up to about 1992, prior to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary; a collector braving the wintry streets of Manchester and Concord could visit all the candidates’ headquarters and get just about all the pinbacks he wanted. Recently, such supplies have become few and far between and the battle cry is, "Go to the Internet" for the candidate’s web page.
Other potential hunting grounds are candidate appearances and events, conventions and election night parties. For older buttons, look in antique stores, hobby stores and the ubiquitous Internet.
Trina Purcell adds, "Nixon had the best slogans of any presidential candidate. We have these little metal things that make a clickety noise and say ‘Click with Dick’ on them. We have window wavers—the candidate’s face and a hand. You stick them in your car window, and the hand waves and the head nods. I don’t know where people get these ideas!" The library even has George Bush dog chew toys and a coffee cup used by Walter Mondale, complete with leftover crud!
They are also trying to or in the process of acquiring such items as John McCain’s Straight Talk Express bus and the celebrated microphone in which Ronald Reagan declared, "I’m PAYING for this microphone!"
A MUST destination for any political collector or buff visiting the area is the Library and Archives of New Hampshire’s Political Tradition, conceived by former NH governor Hugh Gregg in 1996. "He realizes how important the New Hampshire primary is to the nation as a whole. Part of our mission at the library is to make sure New Hampshire maintains its first in the nation status," explains Ms. Purcell.
The archivist goes on to say, "We have about 150 cubic feet of documents for research. We have about 30 feet of ephemera including political buttons, bumper stickers and toys." There’s even a sculpture done by local artist Harold French featuring ’96 candidates Clinton, Buchanan, Dole and Perot in a boxing ring with the NH Secretary of State as referee.
"This library is a fitting tribute to New Hampshire’s rich and unique political history," says President Bill Clinton, according to the museum’s brochure. Clinton, himself an avid political items collector, reportedly needs little encouragement to show off his collection.
Most hobbyists are in it for the fun, not as an investment. Septuagenarian Bob Platt at one time owned an estimated 40,000 buttons. With no place left to put them all in his Texas home, he ended up buying the house next door, figuring to turn it into a museum. Did it turn a profit? "It was SUPPOSED to," he replies, laughing and shaking his head.
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