Presidential Campaign Tin Trays

By Tom Carrier
WorthPoint Worthologist

Throughout the 19th century, supporters for American presidential candidates were able to advertise their loyalty by buying some rather unusual items, or at least considered unusual in the era of bumper stickers and pinback buttons. Prior to the 1896 election, the torch light parade through town in honor of your candidate was commonplace. But you were also able to tip a hat, wear a ribbon, hold an umbrella, wear a vest, or drink from a mug to advertise your support, too.

Christopher Kent, a WorthPoint Worthologist, was fascinated by another typical political item that played a large role in elections in the late 19th century, the tin tray. He talked with Mark Evans of Collector’s Archives at the American Presidential Experience in Denver, Colo., during the Democratic National Convention in late summer 2008 about the significance and the collectability of these historic presidential items.

During the presidential campaign of 1896 between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, individual companies would produce these large, oval tin trays featuring the likenesses of both candidates for resale to gift shops and stores. “Supporters would just buy them as a souvenir of the election or to show their support,” Evans says.

These tin trays were intended to be used every day, both as a piece of decoration for the wall and also as a serving tray. Condition, therefore, plays a rather significant role in assessing value after scarcity. A 1900 tin tray featuring William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson is a rare piece, for example, but there is a lot of normal crazing and rust pits throughout bringing down its value. “Much of this can be repaired, and when you have a quality piece, it’s worth the investment,” Evans says. He paid $400 to $500 for the tin tray, but in mint condition, it would be worth 3 to 4 times that value. A tin tray featuring McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt from the 1900 presidential campaign sold at auction for about $1,100 in 2004, for example, according to WorthPoint’s Worthopedia.

For many of these trays, a blank space was deliberately added along the top and bottom borders and on the sides, according to Evans. “I’ve seen these for various businesses with the name printed in black and then these businesses would distribute them to their better customers, who would then hang them on the wall, which would give them advertising. The ones with advertising tend to have more value because they’re limited to one business in one city and it adds interest,” Evans says. This could be considered a double investment because the tray is scarce, but the addition of an advertising company is even rarer.

By 1896, the acetate political button with a pin attached to the back became the most common way for individuals to show their support for their candidates. They were easier to manufacture at a much lower cost and the distribution was more universal. Items such as the tin tray, the umbrella, the top hat, and other more flamboyant displays of support began to become less important during the presidential campaigns. Of course, that just makes them even more valuable as collectibles.

Watch a video about the presidential campaign tin trays here.

Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects.

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