By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
On the night Harry Truman won the presidential election in 1947, he held up a copy of a Chicago newspaper that made a very big mistake. The headline proclaimed, "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."
Collectors of political-campaign material in those days might not have guessed the blunder would eventually turn into gold, or at least silver. Find a complete copy of the newspaper in good condition today, and a collector might pay between $700 and $1,000.
Or, according to Ted Hake, author of "Hake's Guides to Presidential Campaign Collectibles," if you find a rare, tin lithograph button of Truman behind an eight ball, a dealer might offer you between $5,000 and $6,000. Welcome to the apolitical world of collecting presidential campaign memorabilia. Here the leftovers can become prime cuts. Right now, thousands of professional and amateur collectors are not following President Clinton and likely Republican opponent Senator Bob Dole because of political issues. They want the campaign buttons, placards, pens, delegate credentials, or anything new or goofy that will spill out of a heated national campaign. Should Ross Perot enter the race, many collectors will rejoice. As the nation's most successful third-party candidate ever, not only would Perot's new material be collected, but memorabilia from the previous election would gain heightened interest. "There are more people collecting political memorabilia now than ever before," says Morton Berkowitz, a New York collector and button manufacturer, "and because the presidential campaigning starts almost the day after the election, collecting is almost nonstop." At the Museum of American Political Life here at the University of Hartford, visitors can spend hours looking at what may be the premier collection of political memorabilia in the United States. Some 60,000 artifacts were collected by former chairman of the Travelers Insurance Company, J. Doyle DeWitt. For more than 50 years he scoured the country, and even sent "pickers" to the conventions to gather as much campaign material as possible. The result is a wondrous exhibition of the symbols and shards of political history stretching from a George Washington inaugural button to a Bill Clinton doll. In between are such items as metal torch lights from the 1860s, an Abe Lincoln campaign ax, dozens of oilcloth banners from the turn of the century, a six-inch-tall windup Jimmy Carter tin peanut made in Japan, and a 70-foot-long "history wall" of presidential campaigning with 1,000 campaign artifacts displayed near it. What motivates serious and amateur collectors? "I can't own the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence," says Steve Gibson, a collector and dealer from Carrolton, Texas, "but with a little hustling around I can own a piece of history like the 1908 Teddy Roosevelt button I have. I like the idea that someone wore it in l908, and probably went to a Roosevelt rally." Some collectors focus simply on color and design of artifacts; others collect memorabilia of a particular candidate or party. …