Baylor University Poage Library

Bartering for Buttons

Bartering for Buttons
Connoisseur/By Susan Freudenheim
Source: Texas Homes Magazine, August 1984

The Republican National Convention in Dallas will undoubtedly prove once again that behind every major political campaign stands a button manufacturer. These trinkets, along with their equivalents-bumper stickers, flags, hats and stamps-are as much a part of the American political process as the electoral system. And with the passing of each election year, remainders from the mass of campaign trivia become collectibles.

Every area of collecting has its specialists, and campaign memorabilia is no exception. Among Texas' most avid connoisseurs is Dr. Robert M. Platt, a 55-year-old professor of sociology at the South Campus of Tarrant County Junior College in Fort Worth.

Platt's collection, which began as a childhood hobby, has become a favorite leisure activity. He buys, trades and occasionally sells items, navels to collectors' conventions organized by the national organization of American Political Items Collectors and publishes articles in Keynoter, the organization's journal. Focusing on buttons but also acquiring every conceivable form of campaign knickknack, Platt's 15,000-piece collection lines the walls, fills the bookshelves and cupboards and decorates every possible nook and cranny of a three-room guest house behind his South Fort Worth residence.

Robert Platt's 15,000-piece campaign collection lines walls, fills bookshelves and cupboards and decorates every possible nook and cranny in his Fort Worth home.

The buttons and trivia are almost all campaign materials, although Platt also has acquired some examples of memorial mementos usually produced after a president was assassinated. As a connoisseur of history, he has avoided what he calls drugstore items, the commercial plates and cards produced for retail stores. Platt has confined his interest to material directly related to political campaigns, finding grist for his interest in the sociology of politics as well as amusement in the excesses of popular culture. As would be expected of a scholar, Platt's collection is thorough and organized, assembled chronologically according to candidate and race in cases and volumes. "I've got something from every general election since 1828," Platt says, not without pride. The bulk of his collection is made up of buttons produced after 1896, the year celluloid was invented, making inexpensive reproduction possible.

"As an art form, buttons were the most elaborate at the turn of the century," says Platt, demonstrating the fine portraiture of sepia buttons from 1896 to 1914. "Today the manufacturers don't put the time into the artwork, so most of the buttons are pretty ordinary." As a result, Platt says he does not take too strong an interest in collecting contemporary buttons. He may acquire a few examples during the Republican National Convention in Dallas but probably won't go out of his way to be thorough.

Identifying the subjects of many of the buttons is a challenge, and collectors often have to become knowledgeable about all levels of American politics. The collector's bible is the Guide to U.S. Elections as well as a series of out-of-print books called Living Issues of the Campaign. "I can usually identify anybody who made it to the general election," Platt says, admitting that he nevertheless owns some portrait buttons that he still has not been able to recognize.

According to Platt, like most collectors of this genre he has never collected for investment purposes; most items don't have much value-usually selling for less than $100. Platt's involvement was inspired by an interest in history and a love for seeking out obscure and unusual items. "If I were primarily interested in the monetary value of the objects, I'd be collecting coins instead," says Platt. He has put together his collection from flea market finds as well as mail auctions and exchanges with other collectors.

photograph by Danny Turner

Platt loves the intricate design of the gold bug, a mechanical pin used in William McKinley's and Garret Augustus Hobart's campaign. When the pin is closed, it looks like a beetle-shaped brooch; but pull the lever, and the wings open to reveal tiny portraits of the two candidates.

Having put the greatest amount of energy into the collection in the past decade since his four children have grown, Platt is unwilling to devote the long hours it takes to peruse flea markets, since choice items are becoming increasingly rare. Today he prefers mail auctions, saying, "There are also still many people who have a box of buttons stored in their attic." Another source is the exchange between hobbyists that takes place at annual conventions around the country.

Because the field covers candidates from every local and national election dating back to George Washington, collectors tend to specialize. Platt's interest was first piqued in childhood; he began collecting in 1936 when his grandmother gave him an "Alf Landon for President" button promoting an opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This was the beginning of Platt's absorption with items related to FDR, and he has continued to collect both the pros and the cons. "For years when I was growing up, Roosevelt was

the only president I ever knew," Platt says. "Today I probably have as good a Roosevelt collection as anybody in Texas."

Particularly colorful is a series of buttons mocking FDR that was put out by Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt's opponent in the 1940 election. The short slogans say much about the feelings of the President's opposition, including: "3rd Term Taboo, 23 Skidoo" and "No More Fireside Chats."

Platt's collection extends to the unique; in a showcase he has gathered together surprising oddities including candidates' bottle caps, playing cards, a Spiro Agnew watch, a sewing kit for Governor Lusk of New Mexico, a "Ronald Reagan for Governor" coffee cup and packs of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson cigarettes.

One of Platt's favorite items is a turn-of-the-century mechanical button called a gold bug, which was a campaign pin for William McKinley and Garret Augustus Hobart. When closed it looks like a beetle-shaped brooch, but when a lever is pulled, the wings open to reveal miniature portraits of the President and Vice President. Platt delights in the intricate design of the object, and at the same time it provides him personal nostalgic pleasure: "I remember one of my aunts had one when I was a child," he says. "I always wanted to see how it worked, but she would never let me play with it."

Currently Platt is focusing his interest on Texas in preparation for the state's sesquicentennial. "I'm trying to put together as complete a collection as possible for the celebration," he says, promising to find a place to exhibit the collection so that other people can share this slice of political history.