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Pushing their buttons

June 26, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS

heatherk@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Buttons in albums, buttons locked away in glass cases, buttons laid out on tables, buttons pinned to free-standing display screens, buttons by the hundreds in large bins that eager collectors sifted through with their fingers.

"There have gotta be at least a million" buttons at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center Antietam Creek, one participant estimated Saturday, though there were too many for any kind of official count.

The hotel was the site Thursday through Saturday of the Mason-Dixon American Political Items Collectors' annual conference, the largest annual political memorabilia show in the country.

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Though campaign buttons made up the bulk of the items sold, traded and displayed at the show's 184 tables, some booths included political items ranging from bumper stickers to porcelain donkeys, said Rob Payne, the show manager and president of the Mason-Dixon chapter.

Collectors also displayed the medalettes, which appeared in 1896, that preceded the modern celluloid button, as well as some newer adaptations such as talking "screamers" from the George W. Bush-John Kerry race.

The national APIC has about 3,000 members, mostly history buffs of one sort or another, Payne said. The annual Mason-Dixon show, which has been in Hagerstown for the last 25 years, attracts collectors and dealers from across the country, many of whom had been collecting since they were children.

"It's like a big family," said Pat Evans of Avon, N.Y., who goes to the convention every year with her husband, Mark, and a fraction of his 100,000-item collection. "You see the same people every year. They're all kind of kooky, but collectors of all types are kooky, especially about their stuff."

Eldon Almquist flew in from Kailua, Hawaii, hoping to sell what commonly is identified as the "world's largest Nixon collection."

Almquist invested a quarter of a million dollars into Nixon memorabilia over the last 40 years, but after retiring two years ago, decided it was time to "put the collection back into the hobby."

Meantime, Tom Kitchen, a collector-turned-manufacturer, said he hoped to sell some of his surplus Kerry buttons before returning to his home in Fond du Lac, Wis.

Kitchen said the transition from collecting to manufacturing or designing buttons is common for those who get caught up in the culture of campaign propaganda.

The buttons themselves may have only a minimal influence on an election's outcome, but buttons make a good fundraiser and serve as an American tradition, he said.

From a historian's angle, some buttons also tell stories, said Greg Bannon of Hagerstown, pointing out a "Free Silver" button from William Jennings Bryan's 1896 campaign.

"If you like history, it's like turning back the pages," Bannon said.

Organizers also attempted to turn back time through events relating to this year's theme, "FDR and the War Years," Payne said.

A special display at the entrance showcased World War II memorabilia, including V for Victory pins, badges worn by female workers and a "Shoot the Pants Off the Japanazi" patch.

At Saturday's USO-themed breakfast, guests heard songs from the 1940s, including some by a scat singer.

"We try to give people that feeling of stepping back in time, for just a second," Payne said.

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