If you want to introduce your children to a collecting hobby that might spark interest in how our country has governed itself and what direction we'll take in the future, consider American political campaign memorabilia.

Since the early 19th century, candidates and causes have been bolstered and bludgeoned by advertising broadsides, clothing, silk banners and ribbons, message touting flags, parade torches, and buttons.

The first generation of political buttons, ferrotypes, were made by inserting an office-seeker's photographic tintype into the brass frame of a small button that could be pinned or tied to a lapel.  Ferrotypes of Abraham Lincoln occasionally show up and fetch hundreds of dollars.

Mounted paper images protected by a thin coating of transparent celluloid (early plastic), were first patented in 1893 and made their political debut during the McKinley/Bryan elections in 1896 and 1900.  One such button, depicting McKinley and his second running mate, Teddy Roosevelt, riding a two-seater bicycle on a path to the White House, is representative of what collectors treasure-clever, well designed, themes.  An encircling message; "Gold didn't get there July 7th - But watch us take it there Nov. 3rd," adds additional interest to the button because it describes the Gold standard vs Silver standard political debate going on at the time.  Some McKinley political buttons were nothing more than brass figural "bug" pins worn by Republicans who referred to themselves as "gold bugs."  Bryan supporters also wore figural bug pins.  Guess what color?  These and thousands of other non-descriptive buttons like them can be ferreted out for pennies at tag sales by one who is both lucky and a student of political history.

Buttons stamped out of lithographed tin came into wide use in 1916.  Print decorated tin buttons advertising candidates and issues before then, are most probably fakes.

Most political buttons sell for under twenty dollars.  People enjoy them because of their historical interest and because they are colorful and witty.  A few of my favorites are tough-guy photograph buttons of Teddy Roosevelt with "Rough Rider" captions,   1928 Hoover pins describing a good economy,  a big Eisenhower button picturing his vice president with a slogan reading, "Keep Dick on the Job," George McGovern hippie buttons, any with Ronald Regan on it, and a 1960 John F. Kennedy button reading, "Prostitutes Vote for Nixon or Kennedy ... We don't care who gets in!"

Collecting contemporary political button and mementos, unlike overproduced stamps and baseball cards, is a hobby where today's children can truly collect tomorrow's antique treasures.  Perhaps a Steve Forbes' button with carpet tacks that look like they've been flattened by a steamroller?  How about a red, white, and blue steel lunchbox with Pat Buchanan's name on it?  Or a Dole banana pin?  Who knows what's in store for the President and the First Individual?  What ever it is, it's sure to be printed on a political button.

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Wayne Mattox Antiques | 82 Main Street North | Woodbury, CT 06798 | 203-263-2899 | wayne@antiquetalk.com
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