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Five Ways Collecting Political Buttons is Different than Other Hobbies

by John Olsen (12/29/08).

1. Political button collectors have no idea of exactly how many different button designs and/or varieties are produced in a given year and the exact quantity of each design and/or variety.

Although there are many local campaigns (State Senate, State Representative, U.S. Senate, U.S. Representative, and Governor) for which only a few designs and varieties are ever made, the number of different button designs and varieties produced for the campaigns of the Presidential nominees is impossible to determine. In addition to the designs produced by national campaigns of the presidential nominees and a few well known button manufacturers, there are also local state and county parties, college party organizations, labor unions, local vendors, and individuals that also make buttons every four years. Therefore, no matter how items you have in your collection of a particular candidate, you can be pretty certain that it will never be complete. Since it is the hunt for new items that is half the fun in collecting, political button collectors have an endless source of enjoyment searching for items to add to their collection.

This is especially true for me because I happen to specialize in collecting non-partisan vote items. This means buttons simply encouraging people to vote without party affiliation listed. Every two years, there are buttons made by a countless number of groups, especially non-profits that launch voter registration and Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) campaigns. Many of these efforts are quickly formed and then disappear after Election Day and given a new name two or four years later. Therefore, the number of items which I could add to my collection grows greater every two years, but by how much I will never know.

During the 2008 election, I heard rumors that one well known political button manufacturer produced more than 40,000 different styles for Barack Obama alone. While this number seems greatly exaggerated, there is no way to be certain. Yet, it would not surprise me if there had been 40,000 different Obama button styles made prior to Election Day 2008. Then, there will likely be at least a 1,000 more different styles created for Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.

In most other hobbies—such as stamps, coins, sports and non-sports trading cards, and comic books—the number of manufacturers of these items is fairly limited. Most of these manufacturers release information to the public regarding the exact number of different items they produce and the quantity produced for each item. Since the production of coins and stamps is dictated by the government agencies that produce them, the information is required to be made public.

wendell-wilkie-mcnary

Wendell Wilkie: A metal pin back campaign button for the Republican ticket in 1940 of Wendell Wilkie and McNary running against, and losing to, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, made by Greenduck Company, Chicago, Ill. This button shows a few surface scratches.

2. There is virtually no way to restore a damaged political button to its original condition.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard on the Antique Roadshow the appraiser telling the owner of an item that with careful restoration by a professional, the item’s value could increase by 20 to 30 percent or more. Political button collectors can only wish this was true for their items. With the exception of surface dirt, the damage to a pinback button is permanent. The only conceivable way to repair a pinback button whose plastic covering has been cracked is to dismantle the button and replace the celluloid/acetate covering the paper. This process is so difficult and uncommon within the hobby that it is virtually unheard of. In addition, an alteration to a campaign button such as this basically constitutes creating a reproduction, even though the button paper would be original. Besides damage to the celluloid, another permanent type of damage includes foxing, which is when moisture gets underneath the celluloid and rusts the metal backing. This rust creates brown or black spots on the button paper.

jfk-inauguration1

John F. Kennedy: A button from JFK’s Inauguration Day, 1961.

3. There are no annually produced price guides produced for campaign buttons.

Oh, how I wish this was possible. Since there is no way to accumulate an example of each button produced for any given candidate, even just a complete listing of political buttons is impossible, let alone a price guide.

In the past, there have been efforts taken on by various members of the American Political Items Collectors (APIC) to produce “projects” for a given candidate or election. This type of effort involves a large number of members sending images of items from their personal collection which are related to a particular election or candidate to one or more selected individuals. These individuals would then spend many hours weeding out the duplicate images and then organizing them into categories to be photographed and published in the APIC’s quarterly publication, the Keynoter. I am not aware of any such project done for any election or candidate after 1980.

As for actual price guides, the most highly respected price guide in the hobby is Ted Hake’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Political Buttons. Unfortunately, the “Hake guides” only cover campaign memorabilia related to presidential campaigns from 1792 through 1976. The overwhelming challenge of updating such a price guide makes it time and cost prohibitive. Additionally, while the number of collectors of political buttons is not small, between 7,000 and 10,000 nationwide, it is a fraction of those who collect sports trading cards, stamps and coins. With a relatively limited market for a political button price guide, it would not be economically feasible for an author to undertake and publish such a comprehensive project.

These limitations has not stopped author, Mark Warda from writing and publishing a price guide called, 200 Years of Political Campaign Collectibles. Warda does not attempt to be exhaustive in his listings. He uses examples of specific types of items that the collector is likely to encounter. He then gives price ranges, rather than a single dollar amount for an item. In regards to buttons, he depicts just a few buttons for each candidate, some very common and others very rare to show examples of what collectors might find in their searches.

The only hope of ever having an exhaustive price guide would be for a group of dedicated collectors to create an on-line listing of political buttons. Once this is accomplished, they could have members of the political collecting community post prices as they see them sold in the marketplace, along with proper citation as to where, when and for what price each specific button sold for. As more auctioneers such as Heritage Auction Galleries provide on-line access to their auction archives, maybe such an on-line price guide could be developed in the future. Of course, even an on-line price guide would never be fully complete.

The best way for collectors to keep up to date with prices is to attend political memorabilia shows, subscribe to multiple auction catalogs, and watch on-line auctions as diligently as possible. To do this with a high level of thoroughness would easily consume the same number of hours as a full-time job. While there are many who do their best to keep up on the values of all presidential campaign buttons (as well as other types of presidential campaign items), especially those from the period 1896-1920s—the golden age of buttons—most dealers resort to pricing their buttons based on their past experiences.

socialist-party-eugene-debs
Eugene Debs: A 1910 Socialist Party Eugene Debs Political Button.

4. There is no set grading standards for buttons.

Most other hobbies have established grading standards to rate the condition of items within a given hobby and therefore accurately set a scale of prices for each grading level. This is not the case within the political button collecting world. The most typical types of damage seen on political buttons are scratches, fading, foxing (brown or black spots on the paper underneath the plastic covering), and celluloid cracks. Slight scratches are the most prevalent of all types of damage and have the least affect on prices. The other types of damage described above have severe affects on the value of buttons. Virtually all of them reduce the value of any button at least 50 percent, if not greater.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt: “I Want Roosevelt Again” pin by Bastian Bros., NY

5. The Federal Hobby Protection Act of 1973 forbids the reproduction of political items unless they are marked in a very specific way.

The Federal Hobby Protection Act of 1973 sets very strict rules under which reproductions of political items especially buttons can be made. While this act also sets guidelines for the reproduction of coins, these two hobbies are the only two protected by this act. Unfortunately, a recent effort to broaden the Hobby Protection Act to encompass many other antiques and collectibles failed. So, while political button collectors still have to keep a sharp eye out for reproductions, which are virtually worthless, the Hobby Protection Act deters many manufacturers and individuals from designing and selling political items that appear old and meant to deceive collectors.

John Olsen is a Worthologist who specializes in political and campaign buttons.

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12 Responses to “Five Ways Collecting Political Buttons is Different than Other Hobbies”

  1. Elroy Burgeson says:

    I have Francoma orange political cup in the form of an elephant. At bottom it says Nixon/Agnew,.
    Would you purchase?

  2. John Olsen says:

    First of all, if you are interested in selling an item, I would suggest using Worthpoint’s classifieds section to offer an item for sale.

    Secondly, since I do not collect Frankoma mugs and these mugs are not particularly rare, I would not likely be interested in purchasing one.

    For your information, your mug is from 1969. I have recently seen this mug offered on a few auction sites.

    Thanks for your post,
    John Olsen

  3. John Olsen says:

    I did a little more research on Frankoma mugs and found a nice article on line describing the history of Frankoma mugs at the following site:
    http://www.noaccountingfortaste.com/?p=1079

    I found the name of the site a little insulting but the article about Frankoma pottery company are very positive.
    All the best,
    John Olsen

  4. Will Brecheen says:

    I have a couple of political buttons.
    Dole for President – 1980. “Undecided – Don’t Rush Me” 1980 with pics of Carter, Reagan, Kennedy (Ted), Connally, Brown and Baker.
    Any interest in these?
    Also have a couple of buttons from the 1988 and 1987 Virginia City, Nevada, Camel Races.

  5. S. Austin says:

    Mr. Olsen – While cleaning out some old memorabilia, I came across two political buttons and wonder if there is any value to them. One says “Our President Franklin D. Roosevelt” with “Roosevelt – 1940″ on the side. The other says “Wings for Willkie America (with an airplane drawing) – 1940.” Thank you.

  6. John Olsen says:

    S. Austin,
    These two buttons are reproductions from a set made in 1972 by the American Oil company. Besides the wording on the curl that you mentioned, there should also be the wording/code “AO-1972″ This stands for American Oil and the year the set was made. Frequently, this wording has been painted over or scratched out in order to try to full people into thinking these are originals. Reproductions have NO MONEY VALUE. But, these types of buttons can be used for educational purposes but it is far better to use original campaign buttons which can be purchased for very little money. There are FDR and Willkie buttons that can be purchased for between $10-$20. The real examples of the buttons you describe are fairly rare and go for significantly more money than $20.
    Most often, true collectors who happen to come across a reproduction when they buy large groups of buttons will throw them out or even stomp on them.
    Also, anyone purchasing buttons on Ebay should be very careful. Many, many reproductions are sold on Ebay and it is very difficult to know whether or not the dealer is intentionally selling them as originals or not.
    You can go to http://www.apic.us and look for RESOURCES in the headings as the top of the page. When you scroll over it, it has a drop down list and you should click on the word Brummagem, which means fakes and fantasies. There you will find a list of headings from the Brummagem Project produced by the American Political Items Collectors (APIC) years ago. When you click on a heading, it will show you a scan of that page from the project.
    Sorry for this long response but thought it was important topic to discuss and provide information on.

  7. Jesse L. Hoots says:

    Hello … Interesting. My Grandmother collected buttons of all kinds. She started in the ealy 1930′s. She had thousand upon thousands of them. When she died (1984), they were sold. One small box remains (was overlooked). It has political buttons. Some are very old. I have watched political buttons being sold all over but have never seen anything like I have here. I wonder what I have, I have no idea. One is benjamin Harrison, a little smaller than a dime (photo). — Jesse

    • John Olsen says:

      Dear Jesse, I would be very interested in evaluating the “buttons” you have. I don’t know why I cannot see the photo of the Benjamin Harrison item you have included in your question. But, I will tell you that celluloid pinback buttons did not start until 1896 in the McKinley vs. Bryan presidential campaign. There were different types of lapel devices some with photos and some with just wording on metal used prior to celluloid buttons. While there are a few of these are worth under $50, most are worth a whole lot more. I would strongly encourage you to take advantage of Worthpoint’s “Ask a Worthologist” feature that for $19.95 you can submit photo(s) with multiple items in one photo and I will do my best to find out the market value of the collection. How many different political buttons are in the box and which candidates are represented? What is the overall condition of the items?
      Thanks,
      John Olsen

  8. Jesse Hoots says:

    John … When my Grandmother collected these things, they were fairly common (the older ones). She started in the early 1930′s. The ones I have were overlooked at her death. There are about a hundred or so (not sure). The Benjamin harrison is not a pin. It’s a lapel button turns out. Has his photograph but no name. My Grandmother put it on a card and labled it. Had she not, I would not have known what it was. There is also a Grover Cleaveland made in the same maner. I am doing my will this week and was wondering what value they may have. If I can’t put a value to them, then they will be lost through time as most things like this are. I love American history and don’t think this should be allowed to happen. My email is: Hoots@One-Eleven.Net I can send some photos for you to see. Had an offer yesterday of $200 for all. I researched a button that says “A Full Dinner Bucket” and found this single button to be worth almost what the big time Dealer offered. Good grief!! What’s with these people? LOL Guess they got to eat too. Let me know. If nothing else we can have a little fun. Thanks, Jesse

  9. Rachel says:

    How do I tell if a presidential button is a reproduction or an acutal button? We inherited framed presidential buttons from various presidential campaigns. I am trying to estimate value on these items?

  10. MARY L. HARVEY says:

    Dear Collector,
    I have a Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidential campaign button showing FDR’s head on a red and white background, with ROOSEVELT beneath. It was produced by the Greenduck Company,Chicago. On the backside is a duck (patent number hard to read) and an “AHEL Union” logo. Button number NS 1715675. There is another logo that is hard to read beginning with “NM.”
    Do you know anyone who would be interested in purchasing this button? Please let me hear from you. Thank you.
    Yours,
    Mary L.Harvey

  11. E Hill says:

    i have a polical pin of William Jennings Bryan and i see this one that i
    have not listed among his pins, badges,…etc .I believe in his younger
    years that could possibly be in 1860—1896 . it is definitely an old old pin.
    made of metal and just a pin type you just stick it in lapel or whereever…………
    also his face is showing him looking to his right very sharply right.

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