Published: March 2, 2004
How did politicians ever get their messages out to voters prior to the days of television? One can discover their tactics in the recently mounted exhibition “Push Your Buttons: Politics in Action,” a display of political buttons and other presidential campaign materials on view at the Cape Fear Museum.
Some 900 lively and colorful campaign buttons, along with related objects culled from the museum’s collection and on loan from area collectors, are on view in the show that looks at political campaigns ranging from coastal North Carolina events to statewide contests to presidential campaigns.
Most of us have a button advertising this or that candidate or product tucked away somewhere, but serious collectors of political buttons have a unique perspective of the varied dimensions of political campaigns.
Until as late as the 1960s, American political campaigns were directed at what was a select voter pool: literate white men. Campaign buttons were used to convey the candidate’s message, whether in support of himself or in denigration of his opponents. Since the beginning buttons and other political advertising elevated mere mortals to empyrean heights.
The first political buttons were perfectly functional brass examples engraved with messages and slogans, such as the ones worn by George Washington and some of the guests at his 1789 inauguration in New York. They were sewn onto a garment in place of a conventional button.
The earliest piece on view in “Push Your Buttons” is an 1834 cast-iron medal for Andrew Jackson that was drilled so a ribbon could be threaded through it. Supporters wore them proudly to declare their allegiance to him. Although considered a political piece, it is not generally regarded as a campaign piece.
Political buttons conveyed general ideas of loyalty and support, and they preceded campaign materials that offered more direct sentiments.
In the 1840 election, presidential candidate William Henry Harrison and his running mate Virginia Senator John Tyler campaigned on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” Most schoolchildren committed the slogan to memory without remembering what it described. Harrison had defeated the Shawnee at Tippecanoe in 1811, and ran his “Log Cabin Campaign” with flag waving patriotism and some southern sectionalism. His candidacy employed such folksy elements as log cabins and cider jugs. He defeated Martin Van Buren and died after one month in office.
American political campaign buttons came half a century later and the earliest were ferrotypes. A candidate’s photographic image was processed onto a small piece of iron. The resultant ferrotype was then inserted into a quarter-size brass disc that could be tied to a coat or jacket by a ribbon. Ferrotypes were in wide distribution during Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign and were the predecessors of pinbacks.
The gilt message on a blue campaign ribbon on view advertises the 1884 presidential candidate Grover A. Cleveland and his vice president, Thomas A. Hendricks. The campaign was the first of Cleveland’s three presidential campaigns, each of which was conducted with a different running mate.
A circa 1876 piece resembling a stickpin advertised Rutherford B. Hayes’ candidacy for president. An ornate rectangular gilt frame surrounds the likeness of Hayes, which is stamped “R B Hayes.” A suspended ribbon states simply, “Our Choice.” Not everyone’s, it seems. The slogan “Hail to the Thief” and the epithet “His Fraudulency” was adopted to describe Hayes, who became president after a very messy election in which he lost the popular vote. He was declared president amid questions about fraud in the Electoral College votes in Florida. “Hail to the Thief” was so catchy that it has been applied again and again since Hayes.
Pinback buttons like the ones available today were patented in 1893 by Whitehead & Hoag of Newark, N.J. They first appeared as political campaign advertising in the 1896 presidential race between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. Early pinbacks featured paper images of the candidate or his name mounted over metal disks, which were then coated with celluloid to protect them. By 1916, political pinbacks were made of tin with lithographed images that advertised candidates and their platforms. Whitehead & Hoag was a major manufacturer of political campaign and other advertising buttons into the middle of the Twentieth Century.
Pinbacks allow simple messages or the candidate’s name. Others carry the candidate’s photograph. Jugates are pinbacks with two faces pictured, for example, the presidential and the vice-presidential candidate.
As sloganeering is integral to politics, campaign buttons eventually evolved from a simple image or the candidate’s name to more fanciful pieces that promoted the candidate’s agenda and extolled his virtues – even the ones he might not have had.
The buttons’ bold graphics and colors, the latter most usually of red, white and blue, or some variation thereof, reflect their era politically, socially and stylistically. The jingoism of their messages was catchy, frequently hokey, sometimes even bizarre, and in many cases long outlived the candidate – for better or worse.
The colorful contest for the 1896 White House between McKinley and Bryan was a race of a different hue. McKinley favored the gold standard and gave his campaign buttons a golden theme. His campaign advertising centered on the image of the gold bug with his picture on its wings. William Jennings Bryan, on the other hand, supported the silver standard, and his advertising materials reflected that in color and theme. Voters perceived the gold standard as emblematic of prosperity while silver was thought to represent the metal of the common man, the laborer and the farmer. Then again, Bryan also used the sunflower to appeal to farmers.
Yellow appeared again in the 1935 race when Kansas Governor Alf Landon ran against Franklin Roosevelt and distributed buttons shaped like a bright yellow Kansas sunflower. Senator Robert Dole re-used the Kansas sunflower motif in his 1984 presidential pursuit.
The 1984 campaign produced several campaign buttons of interest. Presidential hopeful Gary Hart distributed buttons with images of himself surrounded by hearts in a play on his name. Those hearts took on a particularly unfortunate significance after a blatant extramarital dalliance aboard the even more unfortunately named yacht Monkey Business torpedoed his candidacy.
The 1949 buttons endorsing Dwight D. Eisenhower carried the straightforward message “I Like Ike.” Supporters of his opponent, Adlai E. Stevenson, identified themselves with buttons that read “Madly for Adlai.” Another catchy slogan memorialized on a pin is “All the Way With LBJ.”
A Twentieth Century button promoting the candidacy of Jimmy Carter beseeches “Gimme Jimmy” around the timely image of a toothy and hirsute Carter. Another Carter pin reads “Remember Watergate – Vote for Carter.”
Political quotations from pundits and politicians from Aristotle to Richard Nixon adorn the walls of the exhibit, along with observations from others like Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and German writer Thomas Mann. Thomas Jefferson’s judicious advice is there. “Politics are such a torment that I would advise every one I love not to mix with them.” Nixon is quoted as having said, “I played by the rules of politics as I found them.”
Historian Eve Carr of the Cape Fear Museum says her favorite is one she read among the works of the Federal Writers’ Project about North Carolina politics in which one politician described his opponent as a “willful, obstinate, unsavory, obnoxious, pusillanimous, pestilential, pernicious and perversible liar.”
Many of the 900-plus objects on view are on loan from Wilmington area collectors. According to Carr, they arrived at the museum haphazardly stuffed in Amway bags and stuck on old corkboards.
The Cape Fear Museum is the oldest history museum in North Carolina and boasts a particularly interesting collection of local and world historical material. “Push Your Buttons” remains on view through November 28 at the Cape Fear Museum at 814 Market Street, Wilmington, N.C. For information, 910-341-4350 or www.capefearmuseum.com.
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