2016’s contentious political campaigns and the candidates’ saturation TV ads will soon be history. But, collectors will see to it that the political memorabilia left behind lives to see another day.
Presidential campaign mementos rank among the few things besides rocks and bottles that collectors can pick up for free. In fact, there are diehard collectors who, like Deadheads, go from city to city and state to state, collecting free memorabilia printed or manufactured specifically for a particular region. This search is about signs, banners, buttons, hats and other ephemera produced to publicize candidates and fire up voters.
How Political Memorabilia Measures Up
When, exactly, did political items become collectible, and which categories are rising the fastest in value? We asked two of the hobby’s top experts to name the four most popular categories of political memorabilia and to share their insights. See what Hake’s Americana founder Ted Hake and the company’s Americana specialist, Scott Mussell have to say.
#1 Campaign Buttons
The large-scale commercial production of campaign buttons began in 1896. Today, buttons have the
largest following of all the various types of political memorabilia.
“Collectors like them because they’re small and easy to display,” said Hake, who authored his first edition of the groundbreaking reference The Encyclopedia of Political Buttons in 1974.
“They’re high-end artworks in a small format. You get a lot of bang for the buck,” Mussell observed. “Some buttons have sold for $100,000 or more, but many nice, early examples can be purchased very inexpensively. For instance, you can get colorful 1896 McKinley or Bryan buttons for as little as $15 to $20. Tons of them were made because they were a novelty at the time.”
Hake and Mussell say the best way to stay on top of the market for campaign buttons is to study auction prices realized, attend shows, and view fellow hobbyists’ collections.
#2 Textiles and Flags
There’s a long tradition of textiles in political campaigns. In addition to flags, which are highly desirable, the category also includes banners, handkerchiefs, bandannas and ribbons.
“Every campaign until the 1900s has had flags, but it’s harder for a beginning collector to get into them because even a reasonably priced flag could cost you $2,500,” Mussell said. “The really big money is in the earlier ones, from before the 1884 campaign.”
The greatest prize a textile collector might aspire to own is a Lincoln campaign flag, from either the 1860 or 1864 campaign. But it won’t come cheaply. A private sale in excess of $150,000 has been confirmed. Nevertheless, collectors should never give up the search, as a treasure could appear where you least expect it. In the 1980s at a local auction in the Midwest, a lucky buyer purchased an antique quilt whose backing was composed entirely of campaign flags, including Lincoln flags. The quilt was carefully dismantled so the flags could be salvaged.
Graphic campaign posters date back to the 1840s. However, the golden age for this sort of ephemera was 1888 to 1908. Many beautiful lithographed posters were created in support of William Jennings Bryan’s candidacy against William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, Hake noted.
In the 1930s, campaign poster art entered a new era when artists started to design them. A trailblazer in the political poster field, “social realist” Ben Shahn, designed posters from the Franklin D. Roosevelt period through the 1968 Eugene McCarthy campaign. Roy Lichtenstein designed a Bill Clinton poster, and, of course, there was the famous Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster with an image of Barack Obama. The poster’s artwork became the focus of a 2009 legal dispute in which Fairey sued the Associated Press for claiming he had infringed on their photo copyright. [n .b. - The suit was settled out of court, with neither side disclosing the terms or surrendering its view of the law.]
“The ‘Hope’ poster became an icon that transcends politics and moves into the art world,” Hake said. “I’m waiting for art buyers to discover the incredible artistic qualities of political buttons in the same way they’ve discovered the posters.”
Pricewise, the high end for political campaign posters is in excess of $30,000.
#4 Pre-1896 Campaign Buttons and Related Items
There seems to be a line drawn in the sand that separates campaign materials produced before and after 1896. There are many collectors of political memorabilia who want only the earlier, pre-1896
pieces that were not mass-produced. That would include pre-pinback buttons.
“When the pinback button came along in 1896, there was no obvious metal except on the back. You had a round button with a photo under celluloid,” Hake said. “Up until that time, campaign badges were ferrotypes with photographic emulsion on metal, or they were cardboard with a metal frame.”
The auction record for a pre-1896 political badge is $47,800. This was paid for an 1864 Abraham Lincoln/Andrew Johnson shield-shape ferrotype.
Of the current crop of campaign buttons they’ve seen, Hake and Mussell agree that the Donald Trump “crazy hair” pin is their favorite. “From the Jimmy Carter campaign onward, only a handful of buttons from each candidate has remained desirable,” Mussell said. It’s having the foresight to predict which buttons will hold their value that makes it fun.
There are endless educational and networking opportunities available through the American Political Items Collectors (APIC), Mussell said. “There are more than 2,000 members, including US presidents, Members of Congress, museum curators, campaign staffers and journalists. There’s a high level of access within the group.”