Political hype started long before those red MAGA hats. “Modern political buttons really started with the McKinley-Bryan election of 1896 and some of the early ones were amazingly colorful and detailed,” said Marty Kane, a collector, as he told us about the political memorabilia show that took place Sunday on the Lower East Side.
Political junkies, local historians and diehard collectors descended on the Grand Hall of St. Mary’s Church to browse old buttons, posters and ribbons touting political candidates and social causes of the past.
Before the show, we got a primer from Kane, a member of the Seward Park High School Alumni Association, which sponsored the show along with the Big Apple Chapter of the American Political Items Collectors.
Nationally, there are some great slogan buttons. It really takes you back to some of the issues of the day. Anything from integration to anti-Vietnam to psychedelic buttons. A lot of them you have to think about, like “Whip Inflation Now” and “Where’s the Beef?”
Locally, it’s the same way. There are buttons from the 1960s that were anti-John Lindsay that just had a snow shovel on them. It was when Queens and some of the outer boroughs got buried for a week and they didn’t dig them out.
There was a pin done for a district leader’s race in the East Village. It has [Philip] Wachtel and [Katharine] Wolpe in a big red apple and they ran as district leaders out of their club on Ninth Street. For most of the world, they couldn’t care less about it but for the person that’s really interested in East Village items, it’s just so classic.
Some folks look for local Congressional candidates. There is great stuff with Bella Abzug’s hats. Most of her political items featured a hat of some sort on them.
You even get the occasional political rally that was held. There are anti-war pins that had specific marches or specific boycotts. You may get something about a cause like Tompkins Square Park. There was a period where they were moving the homeless out and doing renovations and there was some boycotting and picketing.
Paul O’Dwyer, even though it was a local race, had peace doves because so many folks were anti-Vietnam then. Allard Lowenstein has a pin that just has 007 on it. That’s all it says because he was number 7 on Nixon’s Enemies List.
As for Brooklyn, you may find someone like Emanuel Celler, who was in Congress for almost 50 years, or people like Eliot Spitzer or Liz Holtzman, who was groundbreaking as a woman who ran for the Senate from New York. They all started out in Brooklyn. You’ll get some of the weird political parties that have been around over the years in New York. There was a Build Bridges party and you’ll see the Brooklyn Bridge.
There are local collectors that just will collect nothing but New York City. In my old area, the Lower East Side, when I was a little kid, all you had to do was walk into the local Democratic club and there was always a table full of pins for the upcoming election. It was always a hobby that didn’t cost any money.
Nowadays buttons are not nearly as used in campaigns. I think it’s because when you think back in the ’60s and ’70s, people openly wore buttons and put them on their backpacks. In more recent years, a lot of people feel, “I don’t want to get into an argument.” People just don’t wear buttons the same way. And if you go to a political rally, a lot of times they’ll just put a sticker on you now. If you see buttons at all, they’re usually being sold.