PHOTOS: Collectors Preserving Political History

Jul 29, 2017

A series of pins and buttons ranging from 1789 to the early 1900's. The pins include campaign and inaugural pieces from Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. A conservative estimate for the collection puts the value of the tray around $25,000.
Credit Paul Boger

Collectors from across the nation are at the Atlantis Casino and Resort in Reno this weekend as part of the American Political Items Collectors Western Regional Show. Dozens of vendors offer political and pop culture memorabilia ranging from the 18th century to today.
Credit Paul Boger

Dating back to George Washington’s Inauguration in 1789, buttons like this were worn on the coats of participants. There are approximately 27 different kinds of buttons from that day, which were worn on actual clothing. Generally, these buttons are valuable.
Credit Paul Boger

Not every piece of political memorabilia is centuries old. The above buttons harken back to the days when citizens had to be 21 years or older to vote. That was changed in 1971 with the adoption of the 26th amendment. JFK memorabilia also holds special significance today. This year, the 35th president would have been 100 years old.
Credit Paul Boger

Not every button or piece of political propaganda was in support of one candidate or the other. This button featuring a figure who would become known as Alfred E. Neuman – the longtime face of Mad Magazine – was part of an anti-FDR campaign.
Credit Paul Boger / Reno Public Radio

And politicians weren’t the only ones being attacked. Many Americans now look back at the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt with pride and reverence, but in 1940 – as Roosevelt prepared to run for his third term -- Republican Wendell Willkie targeted the first lady. However, that strategy did not pay off. Willkie only won 10 out of 48 states in the general election.
Credit Paul Boger

It’s not just the winner’s stuff that’s collectible. In some cases the memorabilia of losing candidates fetches more interest and money from collectors.
Credit Paul Boger

Buttons and posters are not the only political items of value. It wasn’t until 1896 that the first celluloid button was used for campaigning. Before that, candidates would have to get creative. Above is a scarce, ingenious and popular 1888 Cleveland-Harrison campaign item. This bisque scale – named after the type of porcelain used to make the figures – would be sold and whichever candidate the owner preferred would “outweigh” the other. In this case, Cleveland.
Credit Paul Boger

According to its owner, no one is really sure where this vase celebrating the 29th president came from. However, this beautiful example of political memorabilia goes to show that it isn’t all about buttons.
Credit Paul Boger

Political collectibles don’t necessarily revolve around campaigns for political office. This pin was created as part of a tour given to Martin Luther King Jr. of living conditions in slums of Long Island, New York. Very few buttons were produced for events featuring King.
Credit Paul Boger / Reno Public Radio

Political collectibles may also focus on a particular issue. This coat brush (similar to a lint-roller) was made and distributed by a brewery shortly before prohibition. Liquor and beer companies would create items like this as part of a last-ditch effort to sway consumers against prohibition.
Credit Paul Boger / Reno Public Radio

While most collectors seek out original, mint condition items, some like to modify their memorabilia. Dick Staley of Washington is an avid collector of all things Richard Nixon, including items related to the Watergate scandal. When he stumbled upon a box of old campaign t-shirts, his wife sewed a quilt out of the material.
Credit Paul Boger / Reno Public Radio

Political campaign paraphernalia is often seen as trash after an election, but for certain collectors, the memorabilia is a lifelong passion. Some believe political items like campaign buttons and bumper stickers are actually tangible pieces of both American history and culture. Our reporter Paul Boger, spoke with Adam Gottlieb from American Political Items Collectors about the hobby and why it's an important part of preserving the nation’s history.

Why is this something that should be important to people? Why is this something that should be keepsakes for people to have?

The reason to save political memorabilia is very simple. We remember our past and where we come from. Whether it’s the origins to the Teddy bear, which has connections to Teddy Roosevelt, Watergate or President Obama’s groundbreaking election to the White House, this is history that you can hold in your hand; it’s not a dusty textbook. It connects people with events and, heck, it’s a fun hobby.

It’s amazing to see the variety of color and the explosion of red, white and blue and stars when you look out at all the tables at the show. It’s overwhelming.

It’s not just political buttons. It’s pop culture buttons. It’s posters, banners, bumper stickers, photographs and in some cases ceramic. Before the invention of celluloid and the button, ways to market your candidate included all manner of material.

This sounds like something that’s uniquely American. Is that what it is?

The political button is an American original. It’s as original as baseball, the skyscraper and jazz. It’s one of those things that we can hold high.

They have buttons in other countries, but we were the originator. The first political election that had celluloid buttons was 1896, and we just celebrated the birthday of the celluloid button.

What are the most valuable items? Are these the items of the candidates that won? Didn’t win? What’s the most valuable you’ve seen?

When it comes to value, the winners are not necessarily the most valuable collectibles. In some cases, the losers can have more valuable buttons.

A good example of that is in 1920 when James Cox and a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on the Democratic ticket. The Democratic Party at that time did not have a lot of resources to pay for buttons. So there are very few buttons that were made with both the pictures of Cox and Roosevelt. A lot of buttons came out with their names, like a slogan button. The buttons that have their pictures, both pictures on them, are considered quite scarce. We think of them as sort of the Holy Grail of button-collecting.  In recent memory, those buttons have sold between $20,000 and $25,000. That’s for a piece of metal and celluloid the size of a nickel.

Where do you go from here? How do you spread the word of the importance?

Well, it’s very interesting. You would be surprised how many new collectors have gotten into the hobby because of the interest in both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and a lot of people who collect Bernie Sanders stuff want to see what else is out there. A lot of creativity went into the manufacture of his pins. It actually rivals the creativity of George McGovern’s pins in 1972, the anti-war movement, psychedelic colors.

As far as the cultural significance, people are passionate about their candidates or their scene. There’s a lady in Santa Barbara who collects first ladies. There’s somebody who collects anti-war. There’s somebody that collects suffrage [movement]. As members of the American Political Items Collectors, we’re uniquely poised to preserve American history, display it, share it and also give people the opportunity for people to buy it.

As a note of disclosure, Reno Public Radio receives underwriting support from the American Political Items Collectors. More details can be found at more at apic.us.