George Washington started the custom. And presidential candidates have been using them ever since.
Campaign buttons, that is."Actually, they are not buttons," said Arlene Richter of Candia, New Hampshire. "Buttons are something you sew on a suit. Our campaign buttons are really pins, but, for some unknown reason, we insist on calling them buttons. In the old days, they were mostly medals. Even then they were called buttons."
Richter, who is in her early 50s, has one of the largest collections of campaign buttons in the United States. The collection was started 35 years ago by her late husband Albert, and she maintained and added to the collection since his death.
In all, there are more than 10,000 buttons - or pins, or medals, or whatever you call them - in the Richter collection.
"Campaign buttons were invented by George Washington back in 1789 after he was elected our first president," said Richter. "Washington wanted to show his appreciation to the delegates who had elected him - in those days there wasn't a vote by the populace - so he had some brass medals made.
"The initials `G.W.' were on the medal, as well as the motto, `Long Live the President.' When he was up for re-election, Washington handed out the medals to one and all in advance of the vote. And he won! But the medal did not work a third time around. Washington wanted a third term but had lost popularity.
"Those George Washington campaign buttons are quite valuable. Fathers used to will them to sons. And people who owned them kept them under lock and key. They still do. Those buttons are priceless."
According to Richter, campaign buttons went out of style after Washington left office. "Mostly, the candidates advertised in newspapers or had pamphlets printed extolling their virtues," she declared. "Then, in 1827, Andrew Jackson came along, and he revived the campaign buttons.
"Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and everybody loved him. Thousands and thousands of copper and brass medals with Jackson's name on them were made. People were proud to wear them. That was the start of the campaign button craze in this country. It's still going on.
"One of my favorites is a campaign button with a beardless Lincoln on it," she noted. "Those are quite rare."
About 1840, daguerrotypes were developed, and it became possible for candidates to show their faces to the voters with the help of the campaign buttons.
"The photos were not printed on the buttons as they are today," elaborated Arlene. "Rather, they were small portraits about the size of a stamp with tiny, ornate frames around them. The portraits were pinned to lapels and worn by supporters of the various candidates.
"During the 19th century, presidential candidates took great delight in posing for the cameras. They struck a wide variety of poses and tried to look profound, honest, sincere and, of course, friendly. They didn't have Madison Avenue back them. All they had going for them were the campaign buttons - and rallies, ads and pamphlets. "In addition, campaign buttons were, and still are, a great source of money for the candidates. Even today when you go into a candidate's headquarters and ask for some buttons, workers will try to get you to contribute some money for the cause. In many cases, they actually charge for the buttons."
Richter said most of the buttons in her collection were found at flea markets and in antique shops. "My husband Albert and I must have spent thousands of hours roaming through flea markets," she said. "We always visited them, no matter where we were. The thing to do is check out the junk boxes. They contain old medals, buttons, pins and scraps of this, that, and the other thing. It's in the junk boxes you usually find the prize items."
According to the collector, U.S. Grant had a silver dollar with his profile on it made when he ran for office. "It was pinned on the lapel," she explained. "That particular button is a collector's item. Teddy Roosevelt came out with a tiny bust of his head that had moveable jaws. That's another prize.
"Then there was the pig. This was used at the turn of the century. If you were against a candidate, you wore a tiny pig with the chap's photo on it. I suppose you could say that was one of the very first `dirty tricks.' Bryan had a padlock pin that indicated that he would keep an eye on the treasury if elected.
"Al Smith came out with a campaign button without his name on it," said Richter. "He wore a brown derby and it became his symbol. When he ran for president, he had thousands of tiny brown hats made. His supporters pinned them on."
In the collector's opinion, 1940 was probably the best year for campaign buttons. "Those Wendell Wilkie people turned out some great anti-Roosevelt buttons," she revealed. "True, they came out with some fine pro-Wilkie buttons too. But it was in the anti-Roosevelt department that the Wilkie people did their best work. My favorite is one that reads: `We Don't Want Eleanor Either!' Another said: `Dr. Jekyll of Hyde Park.' Still another declared, `No Franklin The First!' Another was `No Third Term-ites.' Then there was: `No New Deal. We Want A Square Deal!'
"If Wilkie's entire campaign was run with the imagination displayed by his campaign button department, who knows _ he might even had whipped FDR."
Richter is of the opinion there have been no outstanding or memorable buttons turned out in the recent presidential campaigns.
"I haven't seen any interesting ones this year either!" she complained, adding: "Do you know what amazes me? Every presidential election, there is always a great deal of speculation about who is going to end up as the vice presidential candidate for one party or the other. That is, if an incumbent vice president isn't available for the party in power.
"At the last minute, the nominated presidential candidate will hold a press conference and announce his `surprise' choice for vice president. Big surprise! Ten minutes later, everyone at the convention will be wearing campaign buttons with the names of the two party candidates on them. Where do those buttons come from _ so fast? Is there a factory across from the convention hall waiting to turn them out?"
The collector said many Democrats and Republicans may have "future prizes" stored away in bureaus and attics. "How about those Eagleton pins _ the ones made when he was a vice presidential candidate with McGovern?" she said. "Then there were the McGovern-Shriver buttons made up when Eagleton left the ticket. Those buttons are definitely worth saving."
Last but not least, there was Alton B. Parker, who ran for president in 1904 against Teddy Roosevelt. He had millions of buttons printed and they read: "For President _ Alton B. Parker!"
"Parker probably handed out more buttons than any other candidate who ran for president," concluded Richter. "Roosevelt won in a landslide. Parker had the buttons _ Teddy had the votes!"