Published September 13, 2016
Jim Campbell was 10 years old and the tissue company was running a deal — collect box tops, send them in and the company would send back a set of reproduction presidential campaign pins. Campbell, who at a young age was already into politics, was in.
That was 1962, and now, in 2016, the UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science has a collection of at least 400 pins. Only now, he keeps a watchful eye out to avoid those reproductions.
“The pins are really a part of history,” Campbell says. “They give you a glimpse into how the candidates were portrayed, what the public wanted at the time, or what the campaign wanted the voters to focus on and what they thought resonated with voters.”
Campaign buttons have changed over the decades, Campbell says, much like the ways he has come to obtain them. His collection is made up of metal coins with a hole drilled through the top that people wore around their necks with ribbon. Some are celluloid; ones have studs on the back.
Then there are the “pie plates,” as Campbell refers to them. In the heyday of campaign buttons, the diameter typically measured three-quarters of an inch, he says. Now, it’s typical to find 3- or 4-inch pins.
“They have gotten larger and larger over time. People don’t wear them on their clothing like they used to,” he says. “People put them on backpacks or store them on desks as a collectable. Now people are warier of showing their support for a candidate because of the polarization in our country.”
And he isn’t sending in for Kleenex promotions anymore. Campbell has picked up pins from antique stores, websites, trade shows, shopping malls, eBay and email lists.
To be precise, Campbell’s first pin was a real one. It came before the Kleenex promotion. It was for Teddy Roosevelt and he found it by accident.
Campbell was at his family’s house and something slid behind the mantel above the fireplace. He got a clothes hanger, tried to fish out what he was looking for, but instead came out with the Roosevelt button.
“I still have that pin from TR’s 1912 ‘Bull Moose’ campaign,” Campbell says. “That really got me going because I was always interested in politics, then I saw that pin and the rest is history. My goal morphed into getting a campaign button for every election as far back as I could go.”
Now, he has at least two campaign buttons from each major party’s candidate going back to 1896.
And some that, well, weren’t exactly used.
One of Campbell’s favorites is from the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988. At that point, Michael Dukakis hadn’t named a running mate yet and so outside the convention there were two pins circulating — one with John Glenn on it and one with Lloyd Bentsen. Campbell has both pins, each representing a potential VP candidate.
Then there’s poor James Cox.
Cox was a dark horse for the Democrats in 1920 and his candidacy was doomed from the start, Campbell says. Nothing shows this more than his campaign button. The words “peace” and “prosperity” and featured on the top of the pin, but prosperity is misspelled.
“That’s how you can tell the original pin from the reproduction,” Campbell says. “You have the real button if yours is misspelled.”
Campbell has the button with the misspelling, of course.
A look through Campbell’s button collection, neatly organized in his study, is like a glimpse through American history and the major issues that faced this country and concerned the public.
There’s the eight-hour work day featured on a Woodrow Wilson pin. The Gore-Bush flap is adequately represented with a crying baby. Roosevelt’s attempt at a third term is attacked. “The pen is mightier than the sword” is on a Wilson pin before World War I.
Then there’s a Donald Trump pin: He’s portrayed as a character from Looney Tunes.
“Pins are not made now like they used to be,” Campbell notes. “Before, one of the major ways of campaigning was to get your pins out there so supporters could wear them and spread your message. Pins from the turn of the century up through the 1940s were the most interesting because they were really designed for people to wear. Things have changed a lot.”