Collecting Campaigns

Political Memorabilia from Different Eras Put a Different Spin on an Election Year

By Mary Thayer Haugen | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.21.16 – Diversions, Lifestyles

We are in a brave new world with the ensuing presidential election. We have our first female candidate nominated by a major party. If she wins, she’ll make history, and yet, one can almost hear the collective yawn at the mention of her name. On the other hand, we have a contender with plenty of enthusiastic voters, but short on the kind of experience and decorum once expected of a presidential candidate.

It’s a year of firsts that has left many pundits scratching their heads. And while some are already trying to forget the election of 2016, others are savoring the moment in the form of campaign collectibles. “This year, people only seem to want to buy humorous things,” says Sherri Johnson, owner of Retro-Metro gift shop in Downtown Frederick.

Johnson’s store has carried some non-specific political merchandise for years, but this is the first time she has added a significant amount of product and candidate-specific items. She took the plunge because a vendor was offering products she felt were funny and relevant. It turned out to be a good call on her part.

“The anti-Trump items are by far the most popular. There’s nothing mean, just funny,” she says. “The one everyone loves is a small bar of soap titled, ‘Trump’s Small Hand Soap.’ Some customers buy three or four of those at a time. … The other favorite is a tin of candy called ‘National Embarrassmints’ with a picture of Trump on the front.”

Traditional items like stuffed donkeys and elephants are a no-go. It seems people aren’t looking to profess loyalty this time around, just trying to find a laugh where they can. She says her customers enjoy perusing the items in the store, but they are censoring as they go. They are being very careful not to offend this year.

“I think everyone is aware of how divisive this election is,” Johnson says. “Customers quietly put their items up on the counter like they’re buying intimate personal items. They just want to buy it and that’s it. They don’t want to talk about it.”

Serious Collectors

But not everyone is laughing. There are no doubt collectors trying to figure out what items are worth getting and keeping. Because this is a historical election, there may be a temptation to stock up on everything assuming it’s bound to be worth something sooner or later, but there are caveats.

Just as in business, supply and demand rule the day. If a campaign creates a lot of a particular item, that item will be worth less going forward.

After an election, the losers often fade into oblivion, along with the value of their political buttons, but that’s not always the case. If the candidate is controversial in some way, or has a flamboyant personality—like, cough, Trump, cough—those items may still retain value in the years to come.

With such an eventful election cycle, some political junkies may be inspired to start a collection and expand backward. For vintage finds, the best places to look in the Frederick area will be antique stores and flea markets. It seems most dealers dabble in political memorabilia rather than specialize in it. They pick up whatever catches their eye as they travel about.

“My husband and I have a few things in our booth,” says Brenda Parsley, a vendor at Old Glory Antique Market Place in Frederick. “We mostly have buttons, but right now we have an unusual item. It’s a scrapbook featuring political cartoons from 1908.”

Parsley says she and her husband find most of their items at estate auctions. It’s not unusual to unearth some long-ago-forgotten items in a box when a house is being cleared out. The most commonly found memorabilia tend to be campaign buttons, posters and bumper stickers, but there are also unique items such as presidential china and vintage textiles.

The American Political Items Collectors, a nonprofit organization formed in 1945, is a great resource for beginners and experts alike. Its website,, features guidance on things like what and how to collect, and a calendar of group events.

As for the current state of affairs, if our local trend of choosing levity holds true for the country, perhaps historians will look back on this election and conclude that the citizenry decided that it was indeed “better to laugh than to cry.”