As a child, Peter Economou was always interested in politics, but his passion for collecting political memorabilia was kindled at the age of 12 when his mother received a postcard urging her to vote for a youthful senator from Massachusetts running for president.
Economou's mother clipped a Richard Nixon button to that postcard, but it was the card's sender, Sen. John F. Kennedy, who went on to win the White House in 1960. Ever since, Economou has had a fascination with everything political.
Every four years, through high school and college, he helped out with political campaigns, picking up buttons wherever he could. Forty-four years later, a collection of 6,000 buttons from more than a century of U.S. presidential campaigns fill a large closet of neatly framed display cases in his Secaucus, N.J., apartment.
“I’m interested in a number of hobbies, but this one has really fascinated me,” said Economou, who is a member of the of the American Political Items Collectors, an association for hobbyists.
“With political memorabilia you can get a grassroots organization that will make a button or a bumper sticker for a specific event, and perhaps only a few hundred of them are made, and no one knows about it for years until someone goes to a flea market and finds it. You can find something really very rare, and I find that really intriguing,” he said.
With millions of dollars changing hands between collectors and dealers every year and the nation on the brink of one of the most fiercely contested presidential elections in years, the "all-American hobby" of collecting political memorabilia is thought to be one of the fastest-growing pastimes in the United States. And for many collectors, the hobby can also be a lucrative investment.
A golden age
Aside from the keen interest in this November’s election, a significant reason for the hobby’s growth is the expansion of online auction sites like eBay, says Mark Warda, author of “100 Years of Political Campaign Collectibles.”
“Before the Internet, if you found an interesting button in your attic and didn’t know how to sell it, you’d likely go to an antique store and you probably wouldn’t get the best possible price,” he said. “Now you can put it online and receive offers from thousands of dealers and collectors who are looking for memorabilia and will pay a bigger price.”
Warda cites the example of a woman who recently auctioned off a button on eBay with images of John William Davis and Charles Wayland Bryan, the Democratic ticket in 1924. “She received $56,000 for it. But if she had gone to an antique store they might have offered her $100 for it and no one would have realized,” he said.
It is that political staple, the campaign button, that has emerged as the most popular and sought after political keepsake. The hard-to-find buttons, Warda says, sometimes acquire immense value, and that has attracted a whole new group of collectors.
“You don’t spend $5,000 on something if you don’t expect it to go up in price, and in the 40 years I have been involved in collecting political items I have only seen a couple of dips in the market,” Warda said. “It has been going up in cycles, but it has been going up.”
Indeed, says Warda, “this is a good time for collectors."
Over the years, the value of a button usually appreciates, and the more intricate, pristine and difficult to find they are the better.
Rich Padova, an instructor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H., and a dedicated button collector, has collected one button from each Democratic and Republican candidates for every election back to 1896.
“It took me 25 years to do it, but I completed my collection in 2001 and now I estimate I have a collection worth about $12,000,” he says. “For me this is more than a hobby; it’s an investment, and I know that like real estate the value of my collection will only keep going up in value.”
Genesis of a hobby
The political campaign button as we know it today made its debut on the political scene as a celluloid button, also known as a “cello,” and was first issued for the presidential race between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan in 1886.
Jugates (political collector patois for buttons bearing images of both the presidential candidate and his vice presidential nominee) and trigates (a jugate with an additional image of a gubernatorial or a mayoral candidate) almost always fetch more than single-image buttons, Warda says. And while the most collected presidential candidates are big names like Truman and Kennedy, the obscure candidates like Eugene Debs and Adlai Stevenson are also capturing serious prices, he notes.
U.S. presidential mementos have been collected ever since the days of George Washington. But political collecting took off in the 1960s, and American collectors have gathered up all things political, from bumper stickers, posters and newspapers, to postcards, glassware, ballots and leaflets.
Collectors are not only on the lookout for presidential campaign material, but also items from state and local candidates and for special issues such as women’s suffrage, labor, war, health, the environment and prohibition.
Along with the increase in popularity of political items has grown a cottage industry of merchants peddling anything from “limited edition” presidential plates to Ronald Reagan talking dolls, notes Kyle Husfloen, editor-at-large of Antique Trader Weekly. The growth of the industry may presage a dilution of the market for authentic political items he said.
“We now have a marketplace where hundreds of small companies are producing anything related to a president that will sell, and often it has nothing to do with the actual presidential campaign,” said Husfloen. “It’s more about having a sentimental attachment to a president and these are things a serious political collector would not purchase.”
If you’re going to one of this year’s political conventions, you might think about holding on to any campaign buttons you find, as there soon may be fewer to go around according to Husfloen.
Since the 1970s, a great deal more of a campaign’s funds have been diverted into mass media advertising he says. The trend began in the 1920s when radio boomed, and in the decades since then television and the Internet have claimed an increasingly large portion of a political campaign’s funds.
“The outcome may be that political campaigns no longer feel it’s much help to them to make political items that reach out to the electorate or the party faithful,” Husfloen said.