Jim Warlick: From Peanuts to Buttons

In 1976, a young Jim Warlick was doing campaign fieldwork for peanut farmer turned presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. In addition to the usual campaign wherewithal, Warlick had been given a large carton of Jimmy Carter peanuts. “Each bag had a picture of Jimmy Carter on it and about 15 peanuts. I’d eat the peanuts and drink beer,” Warlick said. The floor of his beat-up old Volkswagen filled with Jimmy Carter peanut wrappers. “Today those packages sell for $25 a piece,” Warlick said. “That’s one important lesson I’ve learned—don’t eat your collectibles.”

Jim Warlick’s Worthologist Profile—See link below

The story tells a lot about Worthologist Warlick and his keen sense of both politics and collecting. His career began at age 10 in Morgantown, N.C., where he stuffed mailboxes with campaign literature for Democratic candidates and saved copies of everything.

Warlick kept taking semesters off from college to work in campaigns, collecting all the while. In 1978, he went to work on Capitol Hill for North Carolina Congressman Lamar Gudger Jr. As the 1980 campaign approached, Warlick had an idea—he’d get to the nominating conventions by making and selling campaign buttons. “I had this beautiful, old, turn-of-the-century-style Carter campaign button made,” Warlick said.

Then he made Reagan buttons, and the Democratic congressional aide went to the Republican convention in Detroit where his button-hawking landed him on “The Today Show.” Then it was on to Democratic convention in New York City. “By the time it was over, I had made more at the two conventions than I did in a year working for the congressman. So I quit,” Warlick said.

Warlick designed the campaign buttons and material for nine presidential hopefuls, including Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and John Glenn. And he has trolled the political-memorabilia world snaring such prizes as the items on Franklin Roosevelt’s Oval Office desktop.

The history of campaign buttons really begins in the 1896 race between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley when a thin piece of protective celluloid was placed over printed paper and wrapped around a metal disk. This ushered in a golden age of colorful campaign buttons.

A lot of the button market is rooted in the politics of the campaign, Warlick noted. In 1924, after 103 ballots, John W. Davis emerged as the nominee of an exhausted Democratic Party. “Boy, talk about a brokered convention,” Warlick said. There was not much campaign money or enthusiasm, and Davis lost to Calvin Coolidge. That, however, has made Davis buttons rare and valuable, fetching as much as $40,000.

In 1948, President Harry Truman was such an underdog to Republican New York Gov. Thomas Dewey that the early edition of one newspaper declared Dewey the winner. Warlick bought a copy in the 1980s for $800. “Today they are going for more that $5,000 if you can find one,” he said.

The buttons from Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 campaign, crippled by anti-war protest at the Chicago convention and the unpopular Vietnam War, similarly fetch high values.

The 2008 campaign will likely take its place among the historic campaigns, Warlick said, with the first serious African-American and woman candidates. The buttons have also grown bigger now reaching 3-1/2 inches in diameter.

The market has been dramatically transformed by the advent of the Internet and eBay, Warlick said. Now buttons can be seen and traded instantaneously. “When I started, there were three big books on campaign buttons everyone relied on,” he said, “and you’d have to rely on descriptions of buttons up for sale.”

That has all changed and with it a swell of new collectors that has helped drive up sales, Warlick said. The price of a Roosevelt campaign button, for example, has quadrupled in value to about $20 in the mid-1980s.

And what was the best campaign button of all presidential elections in the last 112 years? “In 1944, when Roosevelt ran for his third term,” Warlick said, “the Republicans issued a button ‘No Man Is Good Three Times.’”

For more information on Jim Warlick, see his Worthologist profile.

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