Campaign memorabilia: a part of American history
“It’s really looking back into history,” says Bill Phelps.
While working at the non-partisan Legislative Research Commission (LRC) for 35 years, Phelps “couldn’t be directly involved in politics, but working around legislators… they’d give you campaign buttons…,” he says.
Among his most favorite are hologram campaign buttons, including an Adlai Stevenson from his mom’s collection.
“Some of these were hers, and then I just expanded on it over the years,” Phelps says.
He then points out that campaign buttons are seemingly a thing of the past “because all of them are going to stickers. They just don’t put money in campaign buttons… You see them some for presidential campaigns, but not so much in the locals.” His collection of local campaign buttons includes Dr. Bill Foley’s run for School Board, Jenny Given seeking to become Woodford County Judge-Executive and Jim Gay’s “Give a ‘Hoot’ Vote.”
Phelps, who takes pride in having a collection of campaign buttons from both Democratic and Republican candidates, says he’s always had an interest in government and politics. That’s probably rooted in his mom Linnie’s career in state government and her collecting campaign buttons before he was born.
“It just accumulated over the years,” says Versailles City Councilman Mike Coleman of his collection. “I’ve always been involved, or I’ve been interested in politics even when I was kid.”
Coleman says he doesn’t attend events to find campaign buttons so he’ll have a large collection, but instead picks up items “here and there.”
Political candidate “calling cards” are probably the most interesting items in his collection. Often with a photo of the candidate, Coleman says calling cards were popular in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“It was a little bit different type of political advertising,” says Coleman as he thumbed through his collection of candidate calling cards, including longtime Versailles City Councilman Luther Bland Jr. and Woodford County Clerk Corine Woolums.
“Whenever they were walking the streets… they would just hand people a card and say, ‘Vote for me’ or whatever, as they were going door to door,” says Coleman.
Two of his more cherished items are campaign buttons for Warren G. Harding, the country’s 29th president, and Barry Goldwater – a dual-image hologram promoting him as the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1964.
In addition to campaign buttons and calling cards, Coleman has collected old newspapers, including coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and its aftermath, along with bumper stickers and the inauguration program for Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins in 1983.
Coleman also has an un-cashed check from Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign when he purchased soft drinks for the press and campaign staffers during the California governor’s overnight stay at the Galt House in Louisville.
“Fascinating,” is how Coleman describes Reagan during their quick hello in 1984. “He didn’t look his age. That (campaign) seemed to energize him.”
Former Midway Mayor and state Rep. Carl Rollins says he starting collecting “a few pieces” of memorabilia during John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president in 1960 “and then kind of got hooked.”
A self-described lifelong Democrat, Rollins has a collection of campaign items from both political parties. He describes Gov. Louie Nunn’s delegate medal from the Republican National Convention in 1968 as “the jewel of the collection.”
Yet, it’s not his favorite.
That honor belongs to his Midway, Ky. Democratic Club campaign ribbon for the presidential campaign of Grover Cleveland in 1892. Cleveland, who won elections in 1884 and 1892, is pictured on the ribbon with his vice president, Adlai Stevenson I. His grandson, also named Adlai Stevenson, was an unsuccessful democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956.
A collection of memorabilia from campaigns help remind Rollins of “who ran against whom” in elections, and “it’s a part of history.” He particularly enjoys looking at convention and inauguration medals, which he says resemble military medals.
His collection includes medals from the Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower-Richard Nixon inaugural committees.
Rollins says the origin of his desire to collect arose from his step-grandmother and her campaign buttons, including one of William Goebel, the only governor in the United States ever assassinated while still in office.
Goebel was killed on Feb. 3, 1900 – four days after beginning his term as Kentucky’s 34th governor.
Rollins says campaign buttons poking fun at candidates are still popular today.
“They’re actually pretty well done,” he says. “They’re funny. They’re not as mean as what you see on TV,” before adding, “but I guess they’re pretty mean.”
Most of the political memorabilia that Peggy Carter Seal has collected has been given to her. Every item represents that person and the memory of receiving it, she says.
A stuffed donkey – wearing a suit and tie – from Seal’s visit to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., and a measuring scoop from longtime LRC Director Vic Hellard Jr.’s campaign for state representative remain special to her.
“It’s Vic,” says Seal of the orange measuring scoop. “I use it every Halloween on my refreshment table next to the candy corn and peanuts because it means he’s there too.”
Seal says she did purchase a commemorative Watergate glass at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. “It was while the hearings (of 1973) were going on and so it was special to me,” she says.
Seal wasn’t old enough to vote when John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, “but that’s when I really got actively involved,” she says.
“I have never, ever missed voting in an election, and will never miss voting in an election. I just think it’s one of the most important rights we have,” says the former second grade teacher.
Seal, who was secretary of the Eastern Kentucky University Young Democrats, credits her grandfathers – on both sides – for making her passionate about civics. “At Sunday dinner,” she recalls, “we always talked religion and politics. I just grew up with it.”
Seal says she attended the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson was nominated to serve a full four-year term. It was her first opportunity to vote in a Presidential Election.
“That is a very, very special one,” says Seal, who started collecting LBJ memorabilia during his campaign. Her EKU dorm room served as Democratic headquarters for students.