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Buttons tell political stories

October 22, 2000|By BOB PARTLOW

Buttons tell political stories



MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Dave Bender has an easy explanation why he has a collection of 7,000 political buttons.

"It's very addictive," said Bender, peering over about 300 of the items from his collection on display during at the public library as the 2000 presidential campaign seasons swings toward a close.

Buttons have been part of the American political scene since 1892, when then-President Benjamin Harrison began using them. Bender has a small Harrison button, as well as buttons for just about every president since.

A Democrat, Bender, 41, began accumulating his buttons when he was about 13. It was much easier then - campaigns and party headquarters gave them out and they were much more prevalent.

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"7-Eleven even sold political buttons at one time," he said. "And you would go from headquarters to headquarters and pick up a few." Now, campaigns have far fewer buttons and they don't give them away.

"Those days are gone," Bender said. Now, it's a hobby that Bender engages in daily, working with dealers, checking the Internet - E-Bay has countless buttons for sale - and looking for the best deals.

"When I started out, I had not intention of this being an investment," he said." I like to buy two of one kind, then sell the other one, which hopefully pays for the first one. I sell stuff just about every day." He's still got a day job. He is a loader for Wonder Bread/Hostess Cakes in Hagerstown.

He specializes in West Virginia political buttons. Among his prizes are a button for Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon from the state party convention in Huntington in 1936 and a Berkeley County button for John Davis, the only major party candidate from West Virginia. The Landon button is worth about $1,000.

That's still a far cry from what is generally deemed the Holy Grail of political buttons, a 1920 "jugate" or button with the presidential and vice presidential candidates - of James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt.

The value now is probably $200,000 said Joe Hayes, secretary/treasurer of the American Political Items Collectors.

So many political items are so much in demand there is a national organization, with an extensive website, 2,800 active members, and relationships with the Smithsonian Institute and presidential libraries, Hayes said.

With buttons, size doesn't matter, Hayes said. It's the scarcity and the significance that's important.

"It was so rare," Hayes said of the Cox-Roosevelt button. "That would have made it valuable anyway. But it had a picture of Roosevelt on it, and of course he went on to become president."

"There's probably some old lady trying to survive on Social Security who's got one of those buttons in a sewing basket somewhere," Bender said.

Buttons are sold by vendors, campaigns and parties. Hayes said the candidates are spending more on television and far less on items like buttons or thousands of other political knick-knacks produced over the years.

"There's everything," Hayes said. "Cigars, humidors, salt and pepper shakes, liquor bottles, mugs, license plates, bumper stickers, dolls, posters - it just goes one and on."

Hayes has one of the rarest of collectibles - a picture taken in the early 1990s of the five living ex-presidents - Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush - signed by each.

What's the fascination with the buttons? Even Hayes can't quite explain it.

"If you look at campaign buttons, you're looking at the whole history of the last century," he said. "People just go crazy. It's hard to explain."

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