Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Fran Ianacone for the May 18, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For Sale: Political Memorabilia
We all know people who collect things: Pez dispensers, Beanie Babies,
matchbooks, shot glasses. But there are also people who collect
political memorabilia – big time.
"If you’re a history buff," says Tony Lee, president of American
Political Items Collectors’ Big Apple chapter, which has about 500
members, "this falls right in your frame of reference. Lots of
different types of people collect political campaign memorabilia,
ranging from amateurs to real historians, professors of history, and
politicians. People find it interesting to capture a great piece of
history. You might look for a presidential candidate who was running
on the day you were born, or compare campaign messages from 1916 to
1944 – whatever year happens to appeal to you. It tells a real story
of what was happening in the country at that time. For those who like
U.S. history, however, there’s really very little to collect. You can
either collect autographs, which are pretty expensive, or campaign
The Big Apple & Mid-Atlantic APIC chapter hosts its Spring Country
Show on Saturday, May 21, at the Titusville United Methodist Church.
More than 100 collectors are expected to display, trade, and sell such
novelty items as paperweights, rulers, even sheet music.
If you think collecting political memorabilia is just for old
fuddy-duddies obsessed with the past, you couldn’t be more wrong.
American Political Items Collectors, or APIC, founded back in 1945, is
a national organization that boasts roughly 3,000 members today,
dedicated to preserving political history. APIC members collect,
preserve, and study political Americana of all types, including:
buttons, ribbons, posters and banners, glassware, canes, autographs,
photographs and prints, ballots, jewelry, torchlights, books,
pamphlets, and handbills.
At the collectors event, says Lee, "You can find pretty much anything
that was put out for a campaign at one of these shows. Anything that a
candidate can put their name on – we collect. This show is an
opportunity for folks to get together and bring objects to show, to
trade, and even to sell."
Lee predicts that the items on display will be all over the board.
"You can go through the room and see political effects back to George
Washington, and all the way up to Hillary for President in 2008."
Is this stuff valuable? A George Washington inaugural button is a
functional button with a shank that was sewn onto clothing. It’s worth
about $2,000. No word in yet on the worth of the Hillary button.
"It’s like a big swap meet," says Lee. "Everyone there will be willing
to trade. And they will all be willing to talk your ear off about
whatever candidate they really like. This show presents a great
opportunity to add to your collection and either be introduced to – or
introduce your kids to – the hobby of political collecting."
Kids interested in history? You’ve got to be kidding. "Actually, we
have a lot of kids, seven, eight, or nine years old, who want to
collect Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan items – candidates who ran for
office before they were even born! When I started collecting,
everybody wanted to collect Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.
The interest level of political collectors changes and evolves along
with political history."
The reasons people begin collecting are as varied as the items
themselves. "In my case," says Lee, "my brother, Sandy, was in
Washington, D.C., during the protest marches. He would come home from
college and give me the buttons. I took all of those buttons to school
and showed them to my freshman year history teacher. The next day, he
gave me another box of older buttons that he, or his dad, had sitting
in a drawer. From that moment on, I guess I was a collector."
Lee, who by day is publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online
Vertical Network, where he has been since 1997, lives in Titusville
with his wife, Jane, and their two daughters. Lee grew up in Texas and
graduated from Denver’s Regis University with a double major in
political science and communications. He received a masters in
journalism from Northwestern in 1982.
According to Lee, back before candidates started spending the bulk of
their money on TV advertising, all political buttons were made by the
candidate’s campaign officials, who might make special buttons to
appeal to different audiences. A button meant to appeal to the
Democratic Women of Somerset County might be different in size and
color than one for a college club.
Later, independent vendors stepped in to make the buttons and sell
them at campaign rallies. Oftentimes, the vendor would make the button
on behalf of a local group in support of a candidate, but the
candidate would have no idea this was happening.
"There are still manufacturers in this country who will create
customized buttons, especially for conventions," says Lee. "Buttons
are pretty inexpensive to make so they can take risks and make unusual
things and see how they do. I was at the Republican National
Convention in New York last summer, and there was a huge range of
buttons in all sizes, shapes, and colors for sale. Remember the huge
protest marches that went on before the convention? Pretty much every
group you could imagine was represented there."
And they all had signs and buttons.
Says Lee: "The history of U.S. politics is politically incorrect.
Candidates have run for everything from the Black Panther party to the
KKK party, the Communist party, Socialist party, you name it. Every
possible viewpoint is expressed in political buttons. It’s always been
that way, pretty much. During World War II, there were buttons with
very derogatory comments on them about the Germans and the Japanese.
People expressed themselves through the buttons that they wore. That’s
why I say it is really a microcosm of U.S. history."
Attendees can get free appraisals at the show. And unlike the Antiques
Roadshow on PBS where the appraisers encourage the owners to take an
item home and store it safely, most people who come to APIC shows want
to sell their items. "We’ll take a look and tell them what it’s worth
and if they’re interested, we’ll do an auction right there on the
floor. So they get a chance to sell it if they don’t want to keep it.
That happens a lot," Lee says.
Asked for a favorite piece in his collection, Lee admits, "I don’t
have one favorite piece, but I do have favorite candidates – Al
Landon, who ran against Franklin Roosevelt for President in 1936. A
lot of his items are brown and yellow and resemble sunflowers –
because he was from Kansas. He lost very badly to Roosevelt, but his
buttons look great."
– Fran Ianacone
Titusville United Methodist Church, 1450 River Road, Titusville.
Second annual political memorabilia exhibit and show presented by the
American Political Items Collectors organization, a national
non-profit hobbyist association dedicated to preserving political
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