The Bridgeville Area Historical Society kicked off the 2019-20 program season with an interesting presentation on memorabilia from past presidential political campaigns. Stephen E. Mihaly gave the presentation based on his collection of more than 20,000 items.
When he was a child, Mihaly’s family was addicted to garage sales and flea markets. One weekend, they bought him a collection of campaign buttons, introducing him to a hobby that soon became an obsession.
Mihaly began his presentation with the 1896 election, which pitted Republicans William McKinley and Garret Hobart against Democrats William Jennings Bryan and Arthur Sewall. The Populist Party also nominated Bryan as their candidate, with Thomas Watson as his running mate.
Mihaly reported that this election was the first one in which the candidates were marketed by the use of campaign buttons and ribbons. This contention is supported by a perusal of such artifacts on eBay — there are lots of McKinley and Bryan buttons offered there and nothing earlier.
The McKinley and Bryan artifacts were interesting and varied. In addition to buttons featuring photographs of the candidates ringed with bunting and patriotic flags, there were earrings, handkerchiefs, soap figures and a gold bug pin with a picture of McKinley in one ear and Hobart in the other. The gold bug was especially relevant as the major issue in the campaign was backing currency with gold (McKinley’s preference) versus silver (Bryan’s approach).
By 1904, the use of campaign gimmicks had increased significantly. Republican Theodore Roosevelt was running against Democrat Alton Parker. Roosevelt had become president in 1901 following McKinley’s assassination and his personality was a perfect inspiration for all manner of items in addition to buttons and ribbons — spectacles, a “Big Stick” stick pin, a bandanna, a watch fob, and even a cast iron door stop. Teddy bears, of course, were an industry all their own and automatic publicity for their namesake.
In the 1912 election, Woodrow Wilson’s buttons featured issues — advocacy for the eight-hour work day and women’s suffrage. President Taft responded by a button declaring “I am for playgrounds.”
Another Roosevelt — Franklin — used campaign souvenirs quite effectively. The speaker showed a large mechanical button with a donkey that kicked “Depression” when you pulled a string attached to its nose
The first election I recall was 1936 when the Republicans ran Kansan Alf Landon against FDR. I distinctly remember Landon’s buttons, which were enclosed in yellow fabric petals in honor of the Sunflower State.
The 1952 election was dominated by the slogan “I Like Ike,” which correctly illustrated the general opinion regarding Dwight Eisenhower. His opponent, Adlai Stevenson, was accidentally photographed with a hole showing in the sole of one of his shoes. In an effort to capitalize on their candidate’s humility, the Democrats put out a series of buttons showing the hole.
As the electorate became more sophisticated, the importance of gimmicks declined. A few exceptions were buttons showing Barry Goldwater’s characteristic horn-rimmed glasses in 1964, Jimmy Carter’s peanuts in 1976, and Ronald Reagan’s jelly beans in 1980.
It’s too bad. I think buttons still are an effective way to make a point.
The Historical Society’s next program is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 in the Chartiers Room, Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. Robert Cranmer will discuss “The Demon of Brownsville Road.”