Collector-in-Chief - US Presidential memorabilia
With the 57th quadrennial United States Presidential election this week, Wikicollecting takes a look at the collectibility of the figureheads of the American dream. From the uniting of the disparate states of America by the very first President George Washington, to the frenzy of excitement inspired when incumbent President Barack Obama was first elected, these leaders have provided America with a wealth of memorabilia for over two centuries.
Presidential memorabilia has been collected as far back as George Washington, who issued buttons for his inauguration. Collecting really took off in the 1820s, when Andrew Jackson’s two campaigns against John Quincy Adams employed advertising in a big way, from posters and buttons to snuff boxes. By the time Abraham Lincoln came along, the advertising wagon was truly rolling and commemorative and campaign items were produced in abundance. Americans feel a very close connection to their head of government. They were appointed by them, they speak and act for them. This feeds an interest in owning part of that, and thus the popularity of collecting US Presidential memorabilia.
Value tends to be defined by the popularity and historical import of a president, as well as the rarity of an item. Yet there exists such a large breadth of collectibles, from items costing just a few dollars such as campaign ephemera, to those that fetch millions at auction, like historical handwritten documents, that anyone can make a collection to suit their tastes and budget. From antique, to vintage, to current, the choice of items is endless.
Memorabilia is also eminently available. There is no need to go to an auction house, as most homes in America have contained some or other piece of campaign memorabilia or merchandise at one point. They will all eventually clear out their basements, and give collectors a chance to snap these items up.
Where to begin?
While the high end collectors will focus on the most historically significant and iconic presidents and items relating to them, some less collected presidents may be worth focusing on for better value – and these items are not necessarily less interesting for being less expensive and popular. Why pay thousands for a bust of Lincoln on your mantel when you could have one of Woodrow Wilson for less than $100? Choose a president that a), you admire, and b), you can afford, and work up from there.
When designing your collection, it is perhaps a good idea to begin by focusing on one president, or one area such as campaign buttons. However, it must be said that many people find that once they get the bug they just can’t stop, and become ‘generalist’ collectors taking in anything that comes their way.
We are currently in a favourable position, right in the middle of history being made. The last two elections have seen the campaigns of an African-American, a Mormon and a woman, all exciting firsts that gave way to some significant collectible items. Anything from these campaigns will be easy to come across and not too expensive at present. As the first African-American president, Barack Obama will inevitably be remembered by history and his memorabilia valuable.
Join a political memorabilia collector’s organisation, such as American Political Items Collectors (APIC). They provide appraisal services and forums for networking and trading. They also put on political memorabilia shows, where dealers, members and auctioneers exhibit and trade presidential memorabilia.
You can find Presidential memorabilia at yard sales, church bazaars, flea markets, garage sales and on eBay. If you want to collect items from the current election, just waltz into your local drugstore or mega-mart for Obama plates and Romney bobble heads. Souvenir gift shops at presidential museums sell memorabilia, and have always sold memorabilia, so vintage items from these places can also be found second hand.
Types of memorabilia
Official documents, handwritten speeches, and letters are the most valuable items of presidential memorabilia. Those connected with George Washington, the first president, and Abraham Lincoln, the president responsible for possibly the most significant act in the history of American politics, the emancipation proclamation ending slavery, are of course the most politically and historically important and consistently achieve the highest prices at auction. Yet there are official documents from other presidents less valuable and easier to come across available. While Washington and Lincoln will ever remain the most significant and popular, that is not to say there is no value or interest in the works of their successors.
Campaign memorabilia and Presidential merchandise
The American people love to whole heartedly show their support for their chosen candidate. They also know the value of advertising. Campaigns are masterminded events of promotion, impressive in their scope and success. They produce a plethora of merchandise for every election campaign, merchandise that forms a large part of Presidential memorabilia.
Just the tip of what this iceberg of memorabilia includes, you can find hats, matchbooks, posters, bumper stickers, playing cards, brochures, pens, ashtrays, t-shirts, spoons, newspapers, postcards, ribbons, bobble heads, Christmas baubles, jewellery, medals, cigarette cases, souvenir dishes, cufflinks, figurines, doll houses… the list goes on. Even Jones Soda bottles from the last election, featuring McCain or Obama, are collected.
One of the most popular items to collect are campaign buttons. Back in the early days, when George Washington issued his inaugural buttons in 1789, these were made of brass and worn on clothing. Now they are generally pins and badges. Lincoln’s campaign saw the first use of likenesses of the candidates on ribbons and buttons, due to the advent of the tintype photograph. For the first time, voters hundreds of miles away could see what their President looked like. Another notable example are the ‘I Like Ike’ buttons produced for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campaign. These buttons intelligently expressed the public’s general feeling of comfort with and admiration for the candidate, sensitive to their disinclination to discuss political issues. These are very collectible, an example of a very successful campaign.
If your interest lies with older presidents, antique convention tickets are very sought-after. William Harrison’s ‘log cabin’ campaign of 1840 produced hundreds of items with the log cabin design, influencing voters in the belief that he was just like them, born in a log cabin. Old ballot tickets, from the days where voters chose a ticket with their candidates on it and signed it rather than placing a ballot in a voting box, are great examples of election history. American flags flown during Lincoln’s campaign with his name included, often folk art examples handmade by supporters, are wonderful items.
The variety and number of items provide scope for an exciting and diverse collection.
Sadness or scandal
Some choose the arena of sadness or scandal connected with Presidents for their collections.
Items connected with the assassinations of favourite presidents, such as newspapers reporting the shooting of John F Kennedy, the opera glasses Abraham Lincoln was using when he was killed, hold a fascination with the event as well as the president themselves. George Washington funeral coins are scarce and desirable.
Tickets for the impeachment trials of Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, letters relating to Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe, all of these have their followers.
Many collectors set themselves the project of sourcing an autograph from every single American president, to achieve a complete set.
Autographs on items are much better than those on scraps of paper. An interesting story to accompany the item is appreciated, just as signed photographs have more eye appeal than lone signatures.
Items belonging to a president are exciting things to be in close proximity to. They are harder to come by and often the top end of collectibles. From Kennedy’s cigar humidor to scraps of Lincoln’s wallpaper, people enjoy owning something that speaks of the men behind the office. Personal letters, especially handwritten examples, are always highly desirable for the same reason.
George Washington’s pistols are the only item that is not a letter, handwritten speech, or official document on the top 10 most expensive items of US Presidential memorabilia. A highlight from Thomas Jefferson’s impressive 18th century wine collection came up for auction in 1985, no longer drinkable, purely as a piece of Jefferson memorabilia. It sold for $156,450. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket watch sold for $15,000 at auction in 2006, and his leather briefcase fetched the same amount in 2009. Obama’s Jeep sold for $26,438 in 2010.
Items from the White House during a President’s term are also highly desirable. A pair of Kennedy administration White House cabinet room chairs sold at Sotheby’s this month for $146,500.