In October 1974, President Jerry Ford decided that one way to beat inflation was to have everyone wear a WIN button (for "Whip Inflation Now").
He announced the program before a joint session of Congress, and a week later, wearing his "WIN" button went off to Kansas City to tell the Future Farmers of America that they should grow "WIN gardens."
I covered the president on the trip, but I wasn't paying much attention to his message. Instead, I was nosing around for WIN buttons. I'm an unabashed collector.
If sales figures are any barometer, I'm not alone in my fascination with political memorabilia. Mat Slater, whose N.G. Slater Corp. of Manhattan is one of the largest political button manufacturers in the country, notes that by the time we elect a president in November he will have produced "several million" buttons for all sorts of causes and candidates.
Slater, 71, recalls his first big order: during the Roosevelt New Deal, when he produced thousands of buttons promoting the National Recovery Administration and sporting the blue NRA eagle.
One reason for the increasing popularity of political junk is that it sometimes winds up being valuable junk. An original (mind you, original) McGovern-Eagleton button from the 1972 presidential campaign goes for upwards of $10. An old cigar box full of Roosevelt, Truman and Ike buttons could conceivably pull down the better part of a C-note.
Herb Collins, curator of the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology's political history division and in effect, keeper of the nation's collection of political buttons, still shakes his head over the 1976 Democratic convention in New York. Almost everything that wasn't nailed down disappeared from Madison Square Garden.
"When I went to board the train back to Washington," he recalls, "all these people were holding banners, state standards and everything. The convention hall was leaving by way of the train station."
Does this mean people are becoming more interested in history and Americana? Not exactly.
"It tells me that there's a market out there," says Collins, "and that there's a value for this stuff today."
Still, what is valuable to historians like Collins may be worthless to others. Would you, for example, really want to acquire a bedsheet on which a political slogan was scrawled? Collins would, and did.
"I'm much more interested in a bedsheet made into a banner that actually hung in the convention hall than in, say, a mass-produced button that you could purchase anywhere."
Is there a general standard for acquisitions?
"If somehow we feel the item directly influenced the mind of the voter," says Collins, "then it has historical significance."
To a political buff, walking through the Museum of History and Technology's "We The People" exhibit is not unlike dying and going to electoral heaven. Where else can you see, along with hundreds of buttons, banners and other gewgaws, the actual interior of John F. Kennedy's campaign plane, or Adlai Stevenson's briefcase (complete with pocket calorie-counter), or listen to excerpts from presidential speeches going back to the earliest days of recorded sound?
Part of the interest in the Carter-Ford debate exhibit may be that, close up, the pressed-wood, vinyl-covered podiums look so tacky. Collins tried to get Carter to donate the dark blue suit he wore during the debates, but to no avail. (Carter is, presumably, still wearing it).
"You don't get everything you set out for," says Collins.
He did manage to get Carter's mother, Miss Lillian, to donate the "Jimmy Won" T-shirt she sported the day after the election.
Collins, incidentally, has no formal acquisition budget; only the prestige of the Smithsonian stands behind him when he goes memento hunting. He often looks for a friendly foundation to buy an item for the museum (and undoubtedly claim a healthy tax deduction).