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Convention Collectibles—Then and Now

by Sandra Lee Stuart (08/26/08).

Tens of thousands of politically themed collectibles are being hawked all over Denver this week during the Democratic National Convention. Campaign buttons, refrigerator magnets, T-shirts, mouse pads, baseball caps, shot glasses, scarves, watches, coffee mugs, luggage tags, key chains—all emblazoned with images of Barack Obama, the Denver skyline and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

A tiny sampling of the Obama souvenirs at the DNC

The last time Democrats held their national convention in Denver was a century ago in July 1908. Denver had fought hard to persuade the party to convene here. It paid the Democratic Party $100,000 and offered free use of its brand-new Denver Auditorium. The auditorium, at the time, was second only in size to Madison Square Garden in New York.

This week, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado Historical Society are exhibiting many old photographs, banners and programs from the 1908 convention. They show downtown streets crowded with delegates, along with parades, demonstrations, souvenir stands displaying political trinkets and trash—what today’s political junkies call “tchotchkes.”

On the political side, Colorado was trying to prove its progressiveness. Even though William Jennings Bryan, the party’s presidential nominee, was not in favor of women being given the right to vote, one of the Democratic delegates from Colorado was Mary C.C. Bradford, an educator and activist for women’s suffrage. Bradford was the first female delegate from the state to attend a national political convention. She joined four other women at the 1908 convention, a delegate from Utah and three alternates.

A 1908 ribbon

A collection of these ribbons, badges and purses was saved by a convention delegate, who took them back to New York and mounted them in a display case as a souvenir from his week in Denver. The display case eventually ended up in the possession of a New York antiques dealer, who brought it to Denver during the annual Worldwide Antique Show in the 1990s.

Native Coloradoan Kathy Genoff attended that show with her mother, who purchased the display case for Kathy as a birthday present for $195. This week, Kathy brought the items in the case to the WorthPoint exhibit at the American Presidential Experience. Genoff is a longtime political and women’s rights activist whose family arrived in Denver during the gold rush of 1859.

Worthologists Thom Pattie, Tom Carrier and Christopher Kent huddled with Genoff for more than an hour learning as much as they could about the history and gauging the likely market value of the items. Pattie, Carrier and Kent concurred that the contents of the display case could sell for thousands of dollars in the event that Genoff should ever decide to part with them.

WorthPoint’s Tom Carrier researching the value of Kathy Genoff’s 1908 convention collectibles

That seems unlikely. “I have a strong sense of Colorado, U.S. and women’s political history,” Genoff said. “These treasures from the 1908 convention in Denver spent most of the 20th century in New York City. Now that they’re finally back in Colorado, I don’t intend to let them ever leave home again.”

A historical footnote: A century ago, the general feeling was the time wasn’t right for women’s suffrage. Despite the fact that women in Colorado had been allowed to vote beginning in 1893, they had to wait fourteen more years to gain that right by federal law.

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