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Political items collectors gather at Columbus convention
The biannual convention is being held for the first time in Ohio
This story is part of a special series.

Karen Kasler
Courtesy of Karen Kasler
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There are some people who might say that political campaigns create a lot of garbage. But to political junkies and historians, that’s an outright lie. Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler reports on a convention in Columbus that brings together a certain group of collectors who fall into both of those categories.

The convention runs through today (Saturday) at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in north Columbus.

Kasler on political items convention

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Over American political history, candidates have connected with voters not just with handshakes and baby kissing. Campaigns throughout the years have produced all sorts of items by which candidates have promoted themselves – everything from the common political campaign pin to placards, postcards, plates, pitchers, and even puppets. The 3,000 members of the American Political Items Collectors have all of these things and much, much more. They gather for a convention every two years, and in APIC’s 60 years in existence, this is the first time such a gathering has been held in Ohio.  And with attendees from 40 states here, it’s the biggest gathering the group has had in decades.  Where else would a President Theodore Roosevelt impersonator be not just welcomed, but treated like a special guest? 

“Isn’t that just a delightful treasure? Now what we’re looking at are items that are well over a hundred years old.”

Joe Wiegand of Tennessee is head to toe Teddy – he calls himself a Teddy Roosevelt reprisor, and says the 26th president is widely considered to be the most collected. 

“The men and women who collect political items, they love history and they love politics.” 

Other popular presidents among collectors are Lincoln, FDR and JFK.  And the hobby is hardly limited to buttons – celluloid button making didn’t come about until 1896, and while they are probably the single most collected item, there are plenty of other artifacts and things that collectors love to see and buy. Tom Peeling is a collector and dealer from West Palm Beach, Florida. 

“There’s metal trays, there’s china, there’s busts, there’s hand puppets, there’s – I saw Ronald Reagan slippers, bedroom slippers. There’s just a myriad of things that people collect and can collect. In this hobby, I have 1,200 Theodore Roosevelt items and I’ve already picked up four more at this show that I don’t have, and there’s a lot more that my budget won’t allow me to pick up.”

Some of the items are small and current – such as tiny pins just an inch or so across each bearing the faces of Obama and Romney. Some are very old – for instance, banners from the 19th 
century – and could be considered priceless to the right person. Jack Dixey is from central Ohio and is the co-chair of the American Political Items Collectors. 

“There was a button that traded hands for over $10,000. That’s pretty substantial for a button. But there’s so much material that can be had for a dollar. That covers a lot of bases.”

And fans of political memorabilia don’t limit themselves to winners. Failed presidential candidates George McGovern and Barry Goldwater are popular with collectors, in some part because items can be hard to find – it was easy for people to throw out things associated with a losing candidate. And some specialize in certain areas – the women’s suffrage movement, or the mid 19th century. But they all are historians, and can tell great stories of what an item means and how it came about. Roger Lowenstein is from Los Angeles. 

“We look at the pieces of Americana as not just something to throw in a drawer but to actually symbolize a political action that someone has taken. You put a button on your body and you’re saying, ‘this is what I stand for – this is what I believe in’.” 

Ronnie Lapinsky Sax is from Maryland, and says these folks are more than just hobbyists. 

“We are custodians of history. We’re only custodians for a short period of time, but history is long, and that’s what’s really important.” 

Sax collects items specifically related to women in politics, and notes that the most expensive item for sale is a medal given to honor one of the women who picketed in front of the White House in 1917 and later went on a hunger strike – it’s being offered for $12,500. The next convention will be in 2014 in Denver.

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