Iowa may be overrun with presidential candidates before tonight’s caucuses but campaign junkies gathered Sunday at Seward Park High School for the annual Political Memorabilia Show. The school’s alumni association and the Big Apple Chapter of the American Political Items Collectors presented a dizzying array of posters, buttons and banners dating to the 1800s.
Despite the age and rarity of many of the items, Donald Trump remained the 800-pound GOP elephant in the room. We spoke with Mort Berkowitz, who manufactures and sells pro- and anti-Trump buttons alongside those of the Democratic candidates; and Tony Lee and Tom Peeling, who only collect vintage political memorabilia. Each has decades of perspective on what makes a killer campaign button.
What do you think of today’s buttons?
Tom Peeling: I consider most of the stuff that’s coming out today to be garbage.
Mort Berkowitz: All the buttons that I’ve seen of the candidates so far in the primary are awful. They’re nothing. They’re boring. Pete. Kamala. Booker. There was nothing exciting.
Tony Lee: There are slogans today that you wouldn’t want a child to hear. Not the nicest slogans. The official slogans are always OK but it’s the unofficial slogans that most voters see.
Tom Peeling: The buttons today just don’t have the pizzazz. The campaigns spend all their money on TV and radio and things like that.
Was there a golden age of campaign buttons?
Mort Berkowitz: The golden age of buttons was when Whitehead & Hoag were making buttons. Those are the great buttons, from 1900 to about 1920. They designed buttons and they sold them to candidates.
Tony Lee: When Willkie ran in 1940 against Roosevelt, Roosevelt was running for a third term. It was the first time ever you had someone running for a third term. Willkie came out with hundreds of slogan buttons, anti-FDR. “No Third Term” is the obvious but buttons like “We Don’t Want Eleanor Either” and “No King Franklin” and “Franklin the Third.”
Those were great slogans, very pithy and even folks who liked Roosevelt but didn’t think any president should have a third term wore those buttons. I think that was when slogans really took off.
Is there a Holy Grail button?
Tom Peeling: It would have to be a Cox-Roosevelt button from 1920. The Democrats didn’t have a lot of money that year. They ended up losing the election but the buttons with a picture of Jim Cox, governor of Ohio, and Franklin Roosevelt, when he was very young, running as his vice presidential running mate. You can start at $15,000 and go up.
And when I say go up, you can go $50,000–$60,000, depending on the variety. And there’s probably only 60 of them known. And that’s several different varieties.
Who are the most collectible presidents?
Tony Lee: Ike is good because Ike came out with so many. He ran twice. The 1950s was a period of consumerism so stuff was being made and everyone was consuming. And so Ike is very collectible because you’ll never get them all.
But then it depends on the candidate. Some people just love Jack Kennedy and so his buttons are most collectible to them. Obama has a huge support network out there. People love his buttons and there are tens of thousands of different Obama buttons.
How are buttons on impeachment selling?
Mort Berkowitz: They’re popular. For instance today, Three Parks Democratic Club is doing voter registration. Yesterday they purchased 416 impeachment buttons. A variety.
What happens to the buttons of candidates who have dropped out of the race?
Mort Berkowitz: They all go in a dollar box. I will have thousands left over and I will sell them to dealers and collectors. Because some of them continue to have value.
I’ve sold about 80 so far today. I’ll sell more. And at the end of the day someone will buy the box. Because they can buy the box for a hundred bucks and there’s 600 buttons in there. And sell them at a half a buck each.
My desire then is just to sell, sell, sell. I get rid of stuff that I don’t need. Beto, Kamala, Julián Castro, Booker, Eric Swalwell.
Going just on the popularity of a candidate’s button, what Democrat will be running against Trump?
Mort Berkowitz: Bernie Sanders. He’s selling more than the others, but there’s nothing significant about his button sales. Pete sells well. Pete has a gay following, so I did a Pete and Chasten, his husband. They sell well. Any new button for a candidate that I put out quickly sells.
Bloomberg sells somewhat, but there’s no great demand for Bloomberg yet. There was no great demand for Klobuchar, but any Warren, any Sanders buttons flew.
John Delaney dropped out last week. So he definitely is out. He’s now in my dollar box. The minute you are out, you’re in my dollar box.
Judging by button sales, who’s going to win the election?
Mort Berkowitz: Trump. The number one selling buttons are Trump buttons.