Collectors of US political pinbacks generally specialize in a specific type, such as presidential, state and local (my own specialty), third party, or "cause" items. Prices in all these specialties have steadily risen since the 1970s. The most desirable and expensive are presidential pins from 1896--when they were first produced--until the 1920s. This is especially true for "jugates", which are pinbacks picturing both presidential and vice-presidential candidates. With a few notable exceptions, most presidential pinbacks after 1960 are worth no more than a few dollars each. In recent years, antiwar, civil rights, and other protest items from the 1960s have become very popular and increasingly expensive.
There are two kinds: celluloid ("cello") pins, which have a protective layer of that material over the picture, and lithographed ("litho")--produced since the 1920s--which have the design printed directly on the metal. Condition is all-important; cracks, scratches, stains, "foxing" (unremovable brown spots from moisture) and other defects can reduce value dramatically. It is possible to find buttons at antique shows and flea markets (usually overpriced), and at online or in-person auctions, but eBay has become perhaps the most important source in recent years. Buttons are best stored away from light either in Riker mounts or in 2x2 coin holders.
Reproductions and fantasies are the bane of the hobby, and they can be very hard to spot. They abound on eBay. The most common usually have some marking on the bottom curl (such as "AO-1972") or reverse of the pin that indicates that they are copies, but many others are very deceptive, even to long-time collectors. The website of the American Political Items Collectors includes "The Brummagem Project", which is the most comprehensive listing of reproductions. Novices--indeed, all buyers--should exercise great caution and should not make a purchase unless the seller is able and willing to guarantee authenticity.
The standard guidebook to the subject is Edmund Sullivan's "Collecting Political Americana". Ted Hake's "Encyclopedia of Political Buttons" (Vol. 1) and "Political Buttons Book" (Vols. 2 and 3), with supplemental updates, provide photos of thousands of buttons along with prices. Of course, eBay listings are the most reliable indicator of current market values.
Political pinbacks are a fascinating, educational, and often very artistic souvenir of American history--each one has its own story to tell. They are unmatched as a collectible for anyone interested in our democratic heritage.
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