Monday, November 14, 2016

Save That Button

QUESTION: My father left me his collection of political buttons. While most are from the last few decades, he managed to find some from the early 20th century. What can you tell me about the history of political buttons and are they worth keeping?

ANSWER: With the recent presidential election less than a week old and much of the country in shock over the outcome, it’s no wonder you’re asking about your collection of political buttons. In the past, these
have been a major part of presidential campaigns. But unless people were working for the candidates, were delegates to either party’s conventions, or were party committee members, political memorabilia seemed to be conspicuously absent from this election.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone wearing a political button or see a car sporting a bumper sticker for a candidate. With the prominence of television and social media, people didn’t seem to be outwardly showing their support for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—and that’s what tripped up the pollsters. So how important is the campaign button?

The early 20th century saw a greater array of presidential campaign memorabilia than ever before in American history. Presidential hopefuls handed out plates, bandannas, posters, paperweights—and, yes, buttons. Candidates didn’t have the funds available  for radio and television ads back then.

Even today the lure of presidential campaign memorabilia remains for most any pocketbook. Tin tabs for Lyndon Johnson or Nelson Rockefeller go for a dollar or two. Jugate buttons feature images of both the presidential and vice presidential candidates on the same button. A Franklin Roosevelt/James Cox jugate button has sold for as much as $50,000.

One of the treasures of the 1904 campaign effort of Alton Parker and Henry Davis was a jugate paperweight with both a shield and flags in color. That same year the United States Glass Company produced a glass tray with the frosted image of Teddy Roosevelt. The oval-shaped bread plate also bore his campaign slogan, "A Square Deal."

Republicans William Taft and James Sherman offered a unique milk glass bank in 1908. After the election, the red, white and blue containers could be used as banks.

Watch fobs were all the rage in the early 1900s, and most presidential candidates handed them out. In 1908, William Jennings Bryan offered one of the most attractive, with the message, "White House Lock Holds the Key."

Like Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt made use of numerous campaign items during his election efforts. His postcards of 1912 first endorsed William Taft but later his western-style cotton bandanna pledged, "My hat is in the ring." The National Kerchief Company printed thousands of these bandannas for TR's Bull Moose Party convention in 1912. The New York Times carried this account of their impact: A woman stood up and waved a bandanna in the most frantic fashion. The woman was beaming...The woman was Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt!"

Many of the campaign treasures changed as the nation moved into the Roaring Twenties. Lithographed tin trays, paperweights, ribbon badges, and watch fobs were  popular until 1920. After that license plates, tin tabs, pennants, and items of jewelry joined the wide array of election mementos already available.

The campaign of 1920 produced one of the most sought after political items of the century. After years of harmony with Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats had become badly divided by 1920 and didn’t spend much on campaigning. So campaign buttons for James Cox and running mate Franklin Roosevelt, for example, were relatively few. One particular Cox-Roosevelt button brought $5,000 in 1976, $33,000 in 1981, and $50,000 in 1990.

Head gear also grew more colorful in the 1920s. It ranged from a red, white, and blue beanie for Warren Harding in 1920 to a brown derby in behalf of Al Smith whose trademark was such a hat in 1928.

America's increasing preoccupation with the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s gave a natural spin to car-related memorabilia, including bumper stickers.

The market for presidential campaign memorabilia is booming. The most desired campaign buttons sell for lots of money. But those with smaller budgets have plenty of opportunities to buy pieces of electoral history at reasonable prices. Original campaign buttons, including those bearing the likenesses of some of the most popular candidates, sell online for less than $30 dollars each.

And as with all collectibles, it’s better to collect items, in this case buttons, that aren’t mass produced but are from smaller batches and special events. Do you have a button for Hillary Clinton? If so, you had better hold on to it.

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