About five years ago, I looked at the chachkies accumulating from my time on the trail. I had old literature, buttons, and signs. I decided it was time to either organize it or get out the trash bags.
As political consultants, we accumulate items promoting our candidates almost through osmosis. We’re each a curator of the campaigns we advise almost without realizing it. After some thinking, I rebuffed the trash bags and instead decided to keep and organize what I started calling my collection. The result has morphed into more than a hobby.
I quickly learned that I wasn’t alone. In fact, there are thousands of people who collect and preserve political memorabilia. Most don’t work in our industry. They’re history buffs, campaign volunteers, or those just interested in the nostalgia of campaigns-gone-by. There’s even an organization called the American Political Items Collectors with nearly 2,000 members and several regional meetings each year.
These folks have a wide array of specialty collecting interests. (I know people who only collect George Washington clothing buttons.) There are those who collect individual candidate items, with Teddy Roosevelt probably being the most popular. There are some who focus only on presidential candidates, but only collect items from earlier in their careers (think Truman for Senate, Reagan for Governor). Some only collect “hopeful” candidates who ran for president (think Robert Taft or Teddy Kennedy). There are people who collect just memorabilia of governors, senators, and congressmen from certain states. Some people collect material from any candidate, but only certain types of items like posters, china, or tintype photographs.
My collection focuses largely on Ohio locals—governors, senators, congressmen, and presidential candidates who hailed from Ohio. The collection includes William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Robert Taft, and John Glenn. To give you an idea of the scope, my collection is small—just over 1,000 cataloged buttons, ribbons, posters, and stickers. Starting a collection can seem daunting, but if you’ve got a couple of signs and a button or two it’s easy to get started.
Every national candidate has made his or her mark with unique items, designs, and messages, but our political history can be roughly summarized into five eras:
The Fine Art Era
George Washington – James Buchanan
This period produced fine china, silver, medallions, ribbons, and textiles. Most items were produced in small quantities with a focus on quality.
The Tintype/Ferrotype Photography Era
Abraham Lincoln – Grover Cleveland
This is the time when photography took hold. Vendors and campaigns created amazing metal display pieces which would house a picture of the candidate.
The Golden Age of Celluloid Buttons
William McKinley – Woodrow Wilson
The “cello” button came into prominence in the late 1890s. For the next few decades, campaigns and vendors produced stunning sepia and full-color designs that are the favorites of many collectors. In many cases, a vendor would make a version of a design for each national ticket allowing you to collect a pair.
The Mass Production Era
Warren G. Harding – Richard Nixon
In addition to celluloid buttons, lithograph buttons came into prominence during this era. Lithos were inexpensive to produce on a large scale so they were great tools for a national campaign. New production methods also allowed for easier production of larger items allowing for 3.5-inch, 6-inch and even 9-inch buttons on a mass scale.
The Made-For-Collectors Era
Gerald Ford – present
While campaigns still produce items for political use, the focus has largely turned to their tactics. The result is that campaigns produce fewer buttons or other items and often charge for them while vendors produce limited runs of buttons for collectors and supporters to purchase independent of campaigns.
There are, of course, exceptions. For instance, the presidential candidacy of James Cox falls within the mass production era (1920), but campaign items for him and Vice Presidential nominee Franklin Roosevelt are rare. A Cox/Roosevelt jugate (a button featuring two portraits) is less than an inch in diameter and recently sold for over $25,000.
In addition, there are dozens of other categories besides buttons: ribbons, posters, event tickets, hats, glassware, ties, soap, thimbles, cigar boxes, license plates, matchbooks, literature, and most anything else you can put a name or face on.
Unfortunately, campaigns and honest vendors aren’t the only ones interested in all of these campaign objects. Over the past 50 years reproductions have flooded the market. Companies in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s mass-produced knock off sets as advertising giveaways. They’re often easy to spot (a 1972 Kleenex tissue is clearly marked as such), but not always. I have a Thomas Dewey and John Bricker jugate that’s worth approximately $250. There’s a worthless reproduction that looks very similar to the untrained eye.
Now, do you want to know what that Dwight D. Eisenhower button you have squirreled away is worth? Or are you interested in starting a collection in earnest and want to know what you’ll have to spend? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.
There are Eisenhower items (and items for nearly every other candidate) valued from a dollar to more than $1,000 and beyond. An Abraham Lincoln medallion might cost $75-$100 whereas a rare ambrotype photograph might be valued at $15,000-$25,000.
In my own collection, I have a “Win with Taft” litho worth $1 and I have a 9-inch Taft portrait button that might appraise at $750.
Not even age or rarity can necessarily be accurate indicators of an item’s value. The limited market also factors into pricing. For instance, that Cox/Roosevelt jugate mentioned earlier commands its price not only because it’s scarce, but also because there are a number of collectors who have the goal of obtaining a jugate for each presidential ticket. In contrast, I have a rare John W. Bricker (vice presidential nominee in 1944) item that might only bring $50 because there just aren’t that many people interested in it.
The best way to start is to collect what you want and preserve the items that help tell your political history. As political consultants, we’re not always concerned with past campaigns. We’re looking forward to the next race, the new client. But as Thomas Jefferson said, “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
That’s true as it applies to our noble experiment of democracy, but it also rings true to me as a political consultant. Even taking into account that a campaign’s context shifts from cycle to cycle, we can still learn something from looking at past practices. And given that our industry creates fewer and fewer mementos with each national election, I think it’s more important than ever that we preserve what those before us created.
Matt Dole is a Republican political consultant based in Ohio.