During the 1992 presidential race, John Olsen—a WorthPoint expert on political-button antiques and collectibles—consistently beat Bill Clinton across the country.
“We were following the Clinton-Gore bus tour selling campaign buttons,” Olsen recalled, “and Clinton was famous for being late. So we could go to a rally, sell buttons, listen to his speech, sell some more buttons and still get to the next campaign stop ahead of the Clinton bus and sell more buttons before he arrived.”
The image of people lining the road with Clinton signs just to watch the campaign bus pass remains with Olsen. “We would stop and sell buttons, and you could sense the excitement,” he said. “So much about campaigns is being excited about your candidate, proudly declaring your support. . . . The young people supporting Obama today are like the young people who supported John F. Kennedy in 1960. And the best way to publicly demonstrate this is with a with a campaign button.”
Olsen was a college sophomore working in Washington, D.C., as an intern at Common Cause, the nonprofit public-interest advocacy group, when in 1990, he discovered Political Americana, a shop specializing in campaign memorabilia. Olsen was fascinated. “I was a political-science major, so I knew about politics, but not much about buttons.”
And so began Olsen’s second political education as he read, went to collector conventions, became a member of American Political Items Collectors and worked as a buyer and then as manager for Political Americana.
Modern campaign buttons introduced in 1896
The campaign button as we know it was first used in the 1896 race between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley when a thin piece of protective celluloid was laminated over printed paper, cut into a perfect circle and crimped around a metal disk. This ushered in a golden age of colorful campaign buttons.
“Before that, there had been ferrotype and tintype lapel pins, but they were quite expensive,” Olsen said. “It was in the McKinley-Bryan race that the button became a way of spreading a candidate’s message—remember, they didn’t have radio or TV.” For more on campaign buttons, go to the Cresswell’s List site.
The American campaign button that is probably best known, Olsen said, is the 1952 “I Like Ike” button for the Republican nominee Dwight Eisenhower. “On the one hand, it really doesn’t tell you much,” Olsen said, “but on the other, it told you Eisenhower, who was seen as the general who won World War II, was very popular.”
The forces of the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, tried to counter. “The Stevenson campaign struggled to find a slogan to match such as: ‘We Badly Need Adlai.’”
The collecting arena isn’t limited to candidate buttons. One of Olsen’s prime interests is “Get Out the Vote” material. “There are all types,” he said. “There is Labor, African American, and going back to the 1920s, there was suffragette material—which is highly sought after today.”
The biggest challenge in collecting isn’t the getting, but the knowing, Olsen said. “The stories linked to a button or a campaign are the real treasure.”
For example, Olsen has a 1970s “Get Out the Vote” flasher button, which as you turn it one way, it shows one image and as you turn it another reveals a different image. This button has three images on it: Jesse Jackson in a preacher’s collar and an Afro, a trail labeled “Freedom Train” and the words “Register and Vote.” “Jackson wasn’t running, so how did this button come to be?” Olsen asked. “I am getting tantalizing close to an answer.”
The biggest toll taken by Internet sales of buttons and memorabilia has been the loss of the tales and the history, Olsen said. “When I began collecting, you had to attend APIC shows to find a wide selection of political memorabilia.” In 1995, he attended a national APIC convention in St. Louis with more than 200 vendors. “It isn’t only that all the buttons are in one place,” Olsen said, “it’s that when you buy it, you are much more likely to learn the story of where it came from, who owned it, the provenance. That’s what we lose online.” At a recent convention, Olsen counted only 75 vendors.
That’s why Olsen has become part of the Worthologist team. “There is nothing I’d like better than for someone to contact me through WorthPoint and say ‘Hey, my grandfather had these old political buttons, what can we learn about them?’”
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