$20,000 for a campaign button? Canton is the place for political memorabilia
The American Political Items Collectors (APIC) is a group of history buffs and fans of the political process who treasure the items of the past.
Every year in Northeast Ohio APIC gathers for its "Big Collectibles Show," where over 250 tables of antiques and memorabilia are traded, sold, appraised and appreciated by both collectors and the general public.
Collectors in their element
Jack Dixey is the organizer and host of the annual convention, known as the Big Show.
"I've collected political memorabilia since I was 13. I now have over a half a century involved in collecting political memorabilia and have been an active member of the American political item collectors since 1968," said Dixey.
The convention used to happen in Columbus but moved to Canton in 2008.
"Canton is very rich in history with the connection of William McKinley. The McKinley Tomb is here, The McKinley Memorial is here, along with the First Ladies Museum," said Dixey.
Ohio was the setting of major events and home to a lot of players in U.S. political history, with seven presidents having been born here, so it makes sense that it would also be home to an event like this.
Collectors at over 250 tables, display their political memorabilia. The main attraction being the campaign buttons. These have come to be viewed as the essential political item to be collected.
Beyond the allure of the buttons, posters, and other campaign swag, one of the big draws of the day is Ted Hake, a legendary collectibles guru. He wrote his first book about collecting buttons, appropriately titled “The Button Book” in 1972. Since then, he has become the authority on buttons of all kinds, not just political ones. And his auction house, Hake's Auctions, is perhaps the most well known in the industry.
"'The Button Book' had both political buttons and what we call broadly nonpolitical buttons, which could be a button for a World's fair, sports, World War Two, anything that isn't political we call nonpolitical. Those are actually the ones I love. But I did go round a catalog in about 15,000 political items. I did three books on those in the 1970s, and they've kind of become the Bible. And people use their 'Hake numbers' to refer to different buttons in the books," said Hake.
"When we became a two party system, people started making tokens and medals, picturing the candidate. And it'd say 'for president,' or some kind of slogan. So that sort of thing started about, oh, about 1824 with Andrew Jackson." said Hake.
Some of Hake's notoriety comes from his decades in the business, which includes multiple appearances as an appraiser on the popular television show, "Antiques Roadshow."
Lexi Martin came from Franklin, Pennsylvania, primarily to see if she could find any pieces featuring her favorite presidential hopeful, George McGovern. But she was also over the moon to get a chance to meet Ted Hake and get his autograph.
"Everyone here is a big Ted Hake fan," said Martin with a laugh.
The rarest of the rare
While nearly every table at the event had a selection of vintage campaign buttons, the pièce de résistance was unquestionably the Cox-Roosevelt pin Hake had with him.
"This one will do about $20,000," said Hake, holding the tiny five-eighths of an inch button in the palm of his hand. "It’s a little button with pictures of Ohio's governor James Cox. And he was running in 1920 with Franklin Roosevelt as VP. A button with two pictures on it cost more than a button with one picture, and the parties just didn't order many of these things."
Hake sold a slightly bigger version of the same pin in 2022 for over $180,000, believed to be the most ever paid for a campaign button. He predicted this one would reach $20,000 or more at auction.
Of course, in addition to the collectors, there are also hardcore fans of history. Larry Marple is an elementary school teacher from South Charleston, Ohio. He comes to the Big Show every year dressed in a meticulous Pres. Teddy Roosevelt costume, much to the delight of attendees.
"I come around and interact with others and share stories, answer questions. There's times I've had people actually ask me to autograph the modern books about Theodore Roosevelt, not historic ones," said Marple. He refuses to autograph an antique and damage it.
Walking around the convention, Marple makes small talk with attendees in character, and even gets some time to do some collecting of his own. Unsurprisingly, he seeks Pres. Roosevelt items almost exclusively.
"Most people are happy to see me. I've had a few who were frustrated because there's some pundits out there who critique Theodore Roosevelt, which every historic character has their flaws and foibles. But I like to focus on the parts that were helpful to the American people," said Marple.
Friction surrounding politics is rare mostly because political leanings rarely come up. It's all about collecting the past, not debating the future, said Marple.
"The collectible world stays pretty much apolitical. Unless you know who you're talking to, you don't talk politics too much. There's people from the left, there's people from the right. And, you know, we put all that aside when it comes to looking at the items and studying history," said Hake.
The Big Show is not only about collection and appreciation, there’s an element of prognostication in the mix as well. Ken Hosner is a longtime political items collector and dealer, and he says the buttons hold the key to the outcome of a presidential race.
"I’ve worked 15 national conventions, both Democratic and Republican, and [in] any election, a button vendor for the most part can tell you who’s probably gonna win. It’s a pretty good indication really, like in 1992, everyone said it was going to be close, but the button vendors said no way. No way, Clinton’s gonna win in a landslide, which he did, because the public, that’s what they bought," said Hosner.
With the cyclical nature of elections these aficionados know that every four years there’s another chance for people to fall in love with history and politics and join their ranks.