Some people collect stamps or coins, others invest in baseball cards or Barbie dolls, but there is also a whole world of collectors whose item of choice is political campaign buttons. The campaign buttons really are invaluable pieces of American history and many treat them with the same reverence given to the first American flags, Declaration of Independence, and other artifacts from Americas past. One appraiser said that political buttons are like a microcosm of political history for the 20th century.
George Washington wore the first political button, a clothing button made of brass, in 1789 at his first Presidential inauguration with the phrase “G.W.-Long Live the President.” The slogan was based off the Britishs Long Live the King cry. An original George Washington cloth button could easily be worth tens of thousands of dollars.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin ran for the Presidency. Many believe that Lincoln was the first president to use buttons as a true campaign tool. Political buttons during this era started to feature daguerreotypes of the candidates and is the first time portraits ever appeared on campaign buttons. This button, in perfect condition, would be worth over $1000 to most modern collectors.
The first mass production of metal buttons, the design we are familiar with today for most campaigns, happened during the 1896 William McKinley campaign for president. These campaign buttons were “celluloid” buttons, with one side of a metal disk covered with paper, printed with the message, and protected by a layer of clear plastic.
One of the most famous uses of campaign buttons occurred during the 1940 U.S. presidential election, when Wendell Willkie’s campaign produced millions buttons in response to news stories about President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It says: “That’s right Franklin, Spinach is Spinach. According to NPR, this button can be traced back to a New Yorker cartoon, where a mother and daughter are sitting around a dinner table. “It’s broccoli, dear,” says Mom. The daughter pushes the plate away and says, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.” The inference on the political button is that Willkie would “tell it like it is” while Roosevelt is guilty of spinning the truth and mincing his words.
Aside from the Washington button, the price of a campaign button doesn’t always rise in relation to its age. Some of the most popular buttons have sentimental value attached to them, such as buttons created for the Kennedy Presidential campaign.”A Kennedy-Humphrey button can be worth $300-$500. This outranks even Lincoln, Roosevelt and Huey Long memorabilia,” said collectibles writer Joyce Worley. Obviously the more obscure buttons, such as those with spelling errors, are considered more collectible simply because they are harder to come by.
Since the turn of the century, the political button has just dominated the political advertising, until television came in. Now it’s a dying art. Political campaign button collectors are hoping to preserve the art and the history that is inherently a part of those buttons for generations to come.