My sixth grade history teacher, Mr. Stevens, collected presidential campaign buttons. The collection, it seems, was comprised almost entirely of student gifts given in exchange for extra credit.
How I actually acquired these buttons, I’m not certain. My allowance each week was faithfully spent on a Crystal Pepsi and a Milky Way. But somehow I would scrounge up money to buy old campaign buttons for a teacher who, ultimately, still gave me a C in history.
I suspect someone wasn’t keeping his campaign promises.
Though my grade went unimproved, I did gain an appreciation for the aesthetic and historic aspect of the campaign button. Their history begins where you would expect: our very first commander-in-chief, George Washington. Metal pins—badges—bearing his initials and the words “Long live the president” commemorated his inauguration. And the tradition continues today. Since the election, buttons bearing Donald J. Trump’s image and the date January 20, 2017, have been printed and circulated in preparation for the next presidential inauguration.
While pins have been used to promote presidential candidates for centuries, it wasn’t until Eisenhower’s campaign with its catchy “I like Ike” slogan that buttons became a prominent part of the campaign culture and public consciousness. Grassroots movements began supporting their candidates, and bashing others. The voting public began wearing their hearts, and their political leanings, on their collective chests. And those pins continue to circulate throughout estate sales and antique malls and between the hands of collectors.
One of the most interesting aspects of campaign buttons of the past is the use of the politicians' spouses. Presidential wives have long held public roles in both their husbands’ campaigns and in the collective curiosity of the public. Their social skills were used to cultivate loyalty among constituents. Their appearances were judged. In popular culture, Jackie Kennedy is a well-known example, but it most certainly goes back farther. Historians have written extensively on the public perception of Mary Lincoln, for example. Her wardrobe, her behavior, her health, were all scrutinized during her husband’s campaign and beyond. Though there were badges made with her image, she was not fodder for campaign buttons—those were not mass produced until decades after her time as First Lady.
Betty Ford had a considerable following during her husband’s campaign as well, and her name did find its way to American lapels. An outspoken advocate of a variety of causes, her popularity may have even surpassed that of Gerald. During her husband’s failing campaign of 1976, she said “I would give my life to have Jerry have my poll numbers.”
Along with standing beside and supporting their presidential husbands, those women were also expected, according to the buttons, to take charge of packing up the White House upon exiting. A surprising number of political pins are dedicated to ordering those same women to “start packing” or to “move over.”
So while the focus was certainly on the men running for President, the public’s eye was always on the women behind them as well.
There are the presidential slogans. There are the independent groups supporting the candidates who back their causes. There are the images of men in ties looking stoic and presidential for the camera. These are the expected, the traditional buttons. But sometimes you have to take a moment and appreciate those that take the kitsch level up a notch or two.
Somewhere between the first and the most recent inauguration—there between the 1950s and the 1980s—was a sweet spot for presidential buttons. Sure, candidates continue to emblazon their slogans and facades on 1”-3” pins. And independent organizations and individuals continue designing buttons with less-than-glowing remarks about a candidate’s opponents. But it’s hard to deny the panache of buttons from those of elections past. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” gear will find its way into antique stores and estate sales throughout the country, but will they light up the eyes of collectors as much as one of Ronald Reagan’s buttons bearing the same slogan do? Time will tell.
Images courtesy of Lori Ferber Collectibles.