The Art of Politics

Editor’s Note: Now that it’s 2008, and the presidential election is fully upon us, Antique Trader thought it would be a good time to examine a favorite subset of ephemera, political memorabilia collecting, with expert Michael J. McQuillen. Look for Michael to keep enlightening us as the year progresses and the election approaches.

banner AT 1-30.jpgIt’s hard to turn on the television, radio or the Internet these days without hearing about the 2008 presidential campaign.

This glazed cotton banner pictures 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie who lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Retail value: $750.

In honor of it being an election year, dozens of museums, including many of the presidential libraries, are planning special exhibitions to showcase the role of campaign politics in American life from our nation’s earliest days to now. The Smithsonian Institution is showcasing an exhibit entitled First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image which is crisscrossing the United States through the end of the year.

The Benjamin Harrison Home, located in Indianapolis, Ind., will focus on the Torchlight Parades of the 19th Century, as well as display artifacts from every presidential contest to date.

convention badge AT 1-30.jpgWhy, one might ask, is all of this attention being placed on campaign buttons and the politicians they represent? Because no matter whether one loves or hates it, almost everyone agrees that politics directly impact all of our lives, and if it weren’t for the occasional “I Like Ike” button, or an Abraham Lincoln “Rail Splitter” campaign flag, our lives would have very likely turned out differently as a result of the votes cast.

A newsreel reporter wore this 5-inch-high convention credential to the 1952 Democratic National Convention where Adlai Stevenson was nominated for the presidency. Retail value: $50.

Campaign buttons and other assorted memorabilia have a long and rich history of impacting who has wound up occupying the Oval Office, and ultimately the decisions that have been made as the result of sometimes only a handful of votes.

Auctions, antique shows, flea markets, Internet auctions and even your grandfather’s dresser drawer are frequently filled with political buttons and campaign paraphernalia dating back as early as the days of George Washington. While there have been items representing every president and practically everyone else who has ever run for office, there has been a continual change in the types of trinkets produced to aid in those campaigns.

Casual and newer collectors, as well as the general public, can be easily overwhelmed at the sheer volume of different types of items and terms that relate to the field of political memorabilia collecting. This article takes a look at these many terms, dispels a few myths, and fills in some of the blanks when it comes to political Americana.

Political Collecting Terms and Definitions – Part 1

– Any item that takes a swipe at a candidate. Example: the button reading “All the Way with L.B.J., but Don’t Go Near the Y.M.C.A.”backpaper AT 1-30.jpg referring to a Johnson staffer’s run-in with the law at a local Washington, D.C. gym.

Paper discs advertising the manufacturer are often found on the reverse sides of political buttons. Whitehead & Hoag was one of the larger companies during the later 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries.

APIC – American Political Items Collectors. A national group of collectors dedicated to the preservation and collection of political memorabilia. Comprised of regions and state chapters, this proactive organization is inexpensive to join and affords members countless opportunities to network and further enjoy their hobby.

Back paper – The typically round piece of paper inserted into the reverse side of pin-back buttons, which name the manufacturer and frequently display a Union Bug. (The Union Bug is a small marking that indicates that the item was printed by a union printer. It can only be placed on printed items by an authorized union printer.)

Banner – Usually made of fabric, a sign that advertises a political candidate or cause.
fantasy AT 1-30.jpg
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was the rallying cry of 1840 supporters of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. Unfortunately pin-back buttons were not used for another 50+ years, making this button a fantasy item. Retail value: $0.

Brass shell – Thin brass metal, usually die-cut pieces in the shape of shields, eagles, and any number of shapes, which will contain the picture and name of candidates. Most often produced in the later half of the 19th century.

Broadside – A paper or material sign that advertises a candidate or cause.

– Something that is usually defined as being flashy and worthless. In political collecting this refers to fake, fantasy and reproduced items.

Butterfly case – A standard case measures 12 inches by 16 inches, is one-inch deep and consists of a black rimmed glass top frame filled with cotton or a foam-like material for the display of small collectibles. Can be found in many other dimensions. coattail AT 1-30.jpgAlso known by the brand name “Riker Mount.”

Coattail buttons incorporate many lower offices with presidential and other candidates. Here a 1964 example pictures Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey for president and vice-president with Robert F. Kennedy riding their coattails for New York U.S. Senate. Retail value: $65.

Cabinet card – Photographic images typically mounted to a 4 1/4-inch by 6 1/2-inch card that were produced heavily from the late 1860s to the early 1900s. Beware of “autographed” images of this type as the signature is frequently part of the printing process rather than being genuine.

Carte de visite, the forerunner of cabinet cards. A photographic image usually mounted to a 2 1/2-inch by 4-inch card that was heavily used from around 1859 until being gradually fazed out due to the popularity of cabinet cards.

Celluloid or cello – Beginning with the 1896 presidential race between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, the process of covering a small paper disc with a layer of a newly formulated clear plastic-type compound became most popular. celluloid button AT 1-30.jpgThat covered disc was crimped around a metal button and held together with a collet, or interior ring, with a pin inserted into the back.

Celluloid covered buttons like this 1 3/4-inch William McKinley picture button were first introduced during the 1896 campaign. Retail value: $55.

Coattail – An item that advertises a higher office with a lower office. For example, a button featuring Kennedy for president along with Welsh for governor would constitute a coattail, as the lower office is theoretically “riding the coattails” of the higher office.

Collector button
– Buttons that are made by collectors, for collectors and were not used for campaign purposes by a candidate or their committee. Many buttons produced today fall under this description and collectors are left to make the decision whether to collect these as well as more “official” buttons.

– A phrase printed on a political campaign item that indicates who paid for and authorized its manufacturer. The existence or absence of a disclaimer does not necessarily prove or disprove an items legitimacy.

fake AT 1-30.jpgFake – An item that is not genuine and has possibly been reproduced or manufactured after the fact. May also be referred to as a reproduction.

Alton Parker ran for president on the Democratic ticket in 1904. This button is made of lithographed metal – a process not used until around 1920. It is, therefore, a fake, and a close reproduction of the original. Retail value: $0.

Fantasy – An item that was never produced during a given campaign. An example of this could include a button with a design that was never used.

Favorite son – Every state throughout the years has had popular local politicians whom the residents of said state feel would make a great president. Sometimes these frequently little-known figures are successful (Bill Clinton) while others are not (Wendell Willkie).

The next installment will complete this list of terminology with another 30 definitions as well as a collector’s guide to the proper care, display and maintenance of political collectibles.

Michael J. McQuillen is a writer, lecturer, collector and full-time dealer in the field of political Americana. A regional vice-president of the APIC and president of the Indiana chapter, the campaigns of Wendell Willkie, Indiana governors and World War II patriotics and police and fire badges are among his favorite collecting areas. He can be reached at P.O. Box 50022, Indianapolis, IN 46250-0022, at, or via