Collecting Political Buttons, Swag and Bling

Collecting NH primary paraphernalia turns 100

The centennial of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary isn’t just about who lost or won over the past 100 years. It’s also about the stuff, the swag, the campaign bling. Most especially, it’s about the campaign buttons. And nowhere does a collector have a better chance at snagging the good stuff than in the Granite State.

Robert “Gabe” Gabriel, a retired purchasing manager for the city of Nashua, started collecting campaign-o-bilia when he was 10 and got paid 50 cents to hold up a Johnson/Humphrey campaign sign in front of Fairgrounds Elementary School.

“Someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, kid. Go downtown to headquarters, tell them you’re from Ward 6 and tell them we need more campaign buttons.’ I picked them up all right, but then I went straight home with 94 campaign buttons — they were all jugates [a picture campaign button with both the president and vice president on it]. That’s what set me off collecting campaign items.”

The  American Political Items Collectors, which has 2,000 members including Gabriel, calls political memorabilia collecting one of the most American of all the collecting hobbies — preserving the history of the democratic American election process.

Gabriel liked it because of his interest in politics and the accessibility to all the candidates, including the earlier runners, that you could only find in New Hampshire. From that 1964 election on, Gabriel picked up every campaign button he could find. “Once people heard I was collecting, they started giving me buttons that had everything on them from people running for local offices to smiley faces. It started getting out of hand so I decided to narrow it down to just presidential buttons. I never missed a candidate from either side.”

But Gabriel says not only has tradition changed around campaign swag, he thinks political buttons and specifically free campaign buttons might be going the way of the whistle stop even though it’s a tradition that dates back to the first political button — an actual brass button made to be sewn on to a jacket, celebrating George Washington’s inauguration in 1789.

Up until the last few presidential campaigns, buttons were handed out by the fistful in hopes that supporters would become walking advertisements. Now most campaigns charge for everything from bumper stickers and buttons to T-shirts and baseball caps as a fundraising mechanism. And the button is slowly being usurped by the much cheaper and ephemeral button-shaped sticker.

But while a free button — like Woodrow Wilson’s vice president Thomas Riley’s good, five-cent cigar — might be harder and harder to find, a free display of first-in-the-nation primary-o-bilia isn’t. “Manchester, the Primary & the Presidency” can be seen at the Millyard Museum through the end of February. It includes campaign buttons, photographs and other memorabilia dating back more than 100 years.

Categories: Politics