With the midterms looming and politics on everyone’s mind, no wonder collectors of political campaign buttons and pinbacks are in their glory, chasing up and adding new selections to what they already have. A report appearing two years ago in LiveAuctioneers’ digital newspaper Auction Central News identified campaign buttons as the most popular type of political memorabilia, followed by textiles, flags and posters. But why pinbacks and buttons? After all, they’re smaller and visually less impactful.
“Their size accounts for much of their appeal,” explained Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions and a lifelong collector of political pins. He is also the author of several books on the subject. “To me, they’re like miniature posters, and they don’t take up a mansionful of space. They’re wonderful artifacts from their time, and getting into the game is both cheap and easy.”
Indeed, nice examples from the 1896 presidential campaigns of William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan (spoiler alert: McKinley won) can be bought for as little as ten or fifteen dollars – and in nice condition! There’s a reason for that: 1896 was the first year that pinback buttons, patented only three years earlier, were mass-produced by the millions, at little cost. Prior to that, the buttons were mostly just that – buttons, which had to be sewn onto a person’s garment.
To be clear, a pinback button is one that can be temporarily fastened to the surface of a garment using its attached safety pin. The fastening mechanism is anchored to the back side of the button-shaped metal disc, either flat or concave, leaving an area on the front of the button to carry an image or printed message. Such was the invention patented by Benjamin S. Whitehead in 1893.
Political campaign buttons have been around in this country literally since the election of President George Washington. At his inauguration, metal pins bearing the phrase, “Long Live the President” were worn by supporters. The phrase was probably chosen as a riff on “God Save the King!,” which the newly independent Americans had been accustomed to cheering back home in Mother England. That pin today, by the way, easily fetches in the thousands of dollars.
Think about it – what other type of collectible, outside of maybe rocks and bottles, can be picked up for free? That’s a trick question. Yes, you can gather pins and buttons at rallies, speeches and a campaign headquarters for free, but there will be a cost when buying at auction, on eBay or at an antiques shop or flea market. The spread is a wide one, as certain “Holy Grail” buttons fetch tens of thousands of dollars, while a group lot of 50 common pins might bring $20.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, we sold a Cox-Roosevelt pinback from the 1920 presidential election for $47,278,” Hake said. “Images of the two men were on the pin, as was the slogan ‘Americanize America.’ It was a record for that particular pin, but is by no means a record for a political pinback. I’ve seen Washington buttons and other rarities top the $100,000 mark. But that’s what makes the hobby so great. There’s attractive product at both ends of the market, and prices are on the rise.”
Ted Hake was first introduced to pinbacks at age five, when a friend of his mother’s – an antiques enthusiast – gave him a pin that promoted World War I Liberty Bonds. He was instantly enchanted and began collecting more pins, in varying types, not just political. Then, in 1951, his father suggested he start collecting coins, and for a time the pins got put aside. But an encounter at a local coin shop brought Ted right back to collecting buttons and pins.
“A friend of the fellow who ran the coin store was a collector of William Jennings Bryan buttons, and he had some on display for sale there,” he recalled. “It cost hardly anything to buy one, so I did and collected political buttons from then on.” Today, Ted is a member in good standing with the American Political Items Collectors (www.apic.us) and was even given the group’s coveted Lifetime Achievement Award.
The first political button to show a photographic image was from Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. Lincoln, as well as his opponents, used the tintype (or ferrotype) process, a photograph made of tin and dark enamel or lacquer. Lincoln’s pins featured Honest Abe’s image on the front and a locking pin on the back – a precursor to the 1896 pinback.
Since around 1916, campaign buttons have been produced by lithographing the image directly onto the metal disc. One of the more famous uses of campaign buttons occurred during the 1940 U.S. presidential election, when Wendell Willkie’s campaign mass-produced millions of lithographed slogan buttons in fast response to news items about his opponent President Franklin Roosevelt.
It wasn’t until after World War II that collectors found each other and organized the hobby. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower unknowingly fed into Americans’ appetite for the pins when it became a trend to wear an “I Like Ike” button on one’s lapel. Notice no political party is mentioned. That’s because the slogan was coined initially, to encourage Eisenhower (who was still serving as Armed Forces Chief of Staff) to commit to either the Republican or Democratic party, something he had not yet done. It worked, as the slogan helped nudge the war-hero general into the race, on the Republican side.
In the 1960s, “grassroots buttons” began popping up. These were produced not by the presidential campaigns themselves, but by regular, everyday people who wanted to either show support for a candidate or bash an opponent. An example was a 1968 pin opposing the Democrat contender Eugene McCarthy. The pin – somewhat inexplicably – said, “McCarthy for Fuhrer.”
Today, sadly, increasing advertising expenses, plus legal limits on expenditures, have led many American political campaigns to abandon buttons altogether in favor of disposable lapel stickers – which are far less expensive to produce – or even virtual campaign buttons, or “web buttons.” Internet users simply place them on their personal websites. Wide distribution is nearly cost free.
But for Ted Hake and many others like him, nothing will ever replace the hold-in-your-hands little buttons and pinbacks that have been part of the nation’s election culture since the very birth of our nation. “Everyday I can look online or attend a show and see a pin I’ve never seen before,” Hake said. “It really is a wonderful little hobby, and great for every taste and budget.”