Have you just started to collect political buttons? Did your grandfather just give you his prized collection of buttons from the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy? Did you mother just hand over the women’s suffrage movement buttons worn by your great, great grandmother, who marched for the right for women to vote? Or did you begin collecting in 2008 with the Barack Obama for President campaign?
Now that you have started your collection, the most important thing to do with your buttons is to learn how to take proper care of them. If you fail to do this, you are risking having your buttons permanently stained or cracked, which will greatly reduce their value and, more importantly, detract from their aesthetic beauty.
What typically causes damage to political buttons? The four main causes of damage to buttons are storing buttons in a careless manner, direct light (especially sunlight), moisture, and extreme changes in temperature.
1916 Charles Evan Hughes button, from the front the button appears near perfect but when viewed from the side, much of the collet on the right hand side is exposed.
If you store your buttons by just throwing them into a box or drawer then it is likely that the surfaces of many of the buttons will be scratched by the pins of the buttons around them. Litho buttons (where the image has been directly printed onto the metal surface of the button) are particularly prone to this type of damage. On several occasions, I have seen large boxes containing hundreds of brand new litho buttons, received directly from the manufacturer, having nearly every button scratched. All the buttons had been shipped all jumbled together in groups of one hundred buttons per bag. This is why it is important to take the time and effort to store any large quantity of buttons neatly in rows in a face-to-face and back-to-back manner. By doing so, the buttons shift very little when moved and can not scratch one another.
Another all too common way of damaging buttons is exposing them to direct light. Direct light, regardless of its source, can fade the printing and colors of a button. The color red is particularly prone to fading by direct light. While direct sunlight is the most damaging, fluorescent light is also very damaging to buttons and any other graphic material. Collectors need to take special note of this since the new energy efficient light bulbs are compact fluorescent will be the only type available in the very near future. If you choose to display your collection on your walls or under a glass display case, you must make sure these items are lit by indirect light only. You should also rotate your items at least every six months.
When I was given a tour of Terrace Hill—the home of Iowa’s governor—one of the staff informed me that a prior Iowa governor had stored many of his most prized pieces of political memorabilia in the hallway between the governor’s office and the first lady’s office on the second floor. Unfortunately, there was a large window on the opposite wall from where the memorabilia was displayed. Sunlight may have beautifully lit up this hallway for several hours a day but it also greatly faded many of this unidentified governor’s prized mementos from his prior campaigns, as well as the presidential buttons he had collected. When I heard that Iowa’s current governor, Chet Culver, was planning to store his buttons in the same place, the next time I saw him, I was bold enough to personally warn him about the damage of continuing to display his collection in that location. It happened that I had a personal stake in this matter, since I had given him a collection of buttons from his father’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1974 and 1980, and did not want those items damaged.
This 1904 Alton Parker button has a major crack on the lower right hand side detracting greatly from its visual appeal.
The biggest cause of damage to buttons is moisture that seeps underneath the celluloid or acetate and rusts the metal collet (the metal band used in the manufacture of a pinback, placed on the backside to secure the paper and celluloid attached to the front of the button) and frequently the metal disc on which the button paper rests. This rust creates black and/or brown spots to appear on the paper. This process is called “foxing,” and significantly reduces the value of any button.
Buttons exposed to extreme temperature and humidity changes can cause the celluloid (the plastic that covers a button) to expand and contract. The result of this process repeating numerous times is cracks in the celluloid on the front, and/or separations (when the celluloid pulls away from the rim of the button). Personally, in order for me to buy a cracked button or a button with a separation problem, the button would have to be extremely rare and inexpensive. Significant celluloid cracks make almost any button worthless.
This Jesse Jackson flasher from the 1970s (an educated guess) has a crack in the worst place, right through his face and a stain or foxing directly underneath it. Yet, it is one of my most prized buttons because I have yet to learn the exact origin of when it was made and why.
To prevent cracks and separations from happening to your buttons, you should store them in the same temperatures and humidity that make you comfortable. The average person is most comfortable when their house stays consistently around 72 degrees and not too dry or too humid. The same goes for buttons. Typically, you do not want to store your collection in the basement, attic, or garage. On the other hand, there are many people who have central air conditioning and finished basements that do not see a large fluctuation in temperature or humidity. In those situations, it is fine to store your collection there. If you are forced due to space limitations to store some of the overflow of your collection in your garage, as I am, I would recommend storing these items in sturdy Rubbermaid containers. This type of container will at least keep the buttons dry, out of the light and not directly exposed to the weather.
This 1908 William Howard Taft button has very slight staining to the right of his head. It could almost be mistaken for shading by the artist.
How do condition problems affect the price of political buttons? As typical with most collectibles, the first factor in the value of political buttons is rarity, the second is desirability, and the third is condition. The difference with political buttons is that there is no official grading scale or professional grading service companies. The most widely trusted price guide on political buttons, Ted Hake’s “Encyclopedia of Political Buttons,” has an update done only every few years and all the prices are based upon mint examples. Furthermore, this price guide only lists political items from 1792 thru 1976. To track the prices of buttons produced from 1980 to the present, as well as the trends of the value of older buttons, one must subscribe to several auctions and create your own database of prices. While most auctioneers take great effort to detail any imperfections in the buttons they are offering, there is still no way for any auctioneer to determine exactly how much he/she should discount his estimate from a button’s mint value in order to compensate for any flaws in any given button.
In preparation for writing this article, I decided to consult several long-time American Political Items Collectors (APIC) members about how various types of damage affects the value of political buttons. Hake, himself, responded that “any visible stain reduces prices by 50 percent, any visible crack 75 percent.” Another highly regarded auctioneer, Al Anderson, from Troy, Ohio, wrote to me about a rule developed by his good friend, Dr. Jeff Pressman of San Diego. Dr. Pressman’s rule is “when you see the item, do you say ‘Wow, it’s beautiful or great,’ or do you say, ‘Boy that cut, stain, foxing, or off-centeredness bothers me.’ If you see the beauty you can live with it and like it, just decide on a value. If the first time you are bothered by the problem, you will always be bothered by it and should not buy the piece—at any price.”
Group of seven William Jennings Bryan buttons from 1896 and 1900 with various condition problems including chips, foxing, celluloid separations, and dents. Some of the problems are more noticeable than others. The damage on each one greatly reduced its monetary value but not its historical or educational value.
Personally, the best guidance I can provide in regards to judging the value of a button with condition problems is to give a couple of anecdotes as to what I perceive is the typical attitude towards condition problems. One of my best friends in APIC owns a rare William Jennings Bryan button from 1896 that in mint condition would be valued at about $1,000. But because of some stains on it, he was able to purchase it for only $50. During a visit to the house of another APIC friend, along with two other APIC members, I noticed a shoe box full of buttons from the classic age of political buttons, 1896-1920s. I did notice that virtually all of them had some significant condition problems but still historically significant. In mint condition, most of these buttons would be valued from between $30-$75 each. When I inquired if they were for sale or not, my friend said, “Take whatever you want for free.” The three of us visitors were like kids in a candy store with huge grins on our face. We were thrilled to take our friend up on his offer because these buttons were still quite displayable and it is always better to have a damaged example than none at all.
I think it is important to remember when considering buying a button with condition problems is that these buttons are still historically valuable. Buying such buttons is a great way to build a collection of rare and historically significant buttons without having to break the bank. When you can afford to upgrade your collection to include better condition examples, you definitely should. But, until that point, why not have a collection of highly sought after buttons that just happen to have a few spots of foxing or a small crack on the side?
Beyond the tips and tools already provided, what else can you do to preserve your prized political buttons? What if you want quick and easy access to your buttons? Do you need to transport your buttons frequently? What is the best way to display your collection? These types of questions will be answered in my next article, “The Preservation and Displaying of Political Campaign Buttons.”
John Olsen is a Worthologist who specializes in political and campaign buttons and pins
WorthPoint: Get the Most from Your Antiques and Collectibles