Political buttons trace political and social change

A look back at elected officials pinning their hopes on buttons

March 24, 2016
By Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Communications

“All the way with LBJ.” “I like Ike.” Peace signs and rainbows. Catchy slogans, iconic symbols, and striking colors are the makings for memorable political buttons.

“Campaign buttons are ideal ‘collectibles’ because they are small, because they connect directly to events that can be dated and that often have very broad resonance, and because they remind us that ordinary people — voters and activists — drive political and social change,” said Laurel Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University professor and resident expert of objects at Harvard.

The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Library is home to about 2,000 buttons donated by Steven Rothstein, campaign enthusiast and former head of the Perkins School for the Blind. The collection traces ballot initiatives, topical issues, and local and national campaigns from Calvin Coolidge to Barack Obama.

For Leslie Donnell, director of Library & Knowledge Services at HKS, combing through the collection brought back many memories. “It’s very visceral,” she said. “For me, the excitement was to look back in time. I can remember campaigns that were going on in the ’70s. And it was really fun for me to look back and say, ‘I remember that.’”

Collectively, the buttons serve as an overview of American politics since the early 20th century. Individually, a button may bring back a particular moment in U.S. history.

“We have a number of Wallace buttons. I remember back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I remember the trauma that was going on in the South. And so again, it brought back history, social history too,” said Donnell.

“Cronin for Congress.” “Maine for Muskie.” “Go Mo.” Alliteration and rhyme are tools of the button trade. Strong design may distinguish a button. And color is key. A bright orange Norman Mailer button stands out in a sea of blue and red tones, though course materials coordinator Emily Eckart, who has worked closely with the collection, is quick to point out, “He didn’t win.”

Interesting stories are unearthed from a button. McGovern/Shriver is the ticket most remember from 1972, but a couple of McGovern/Eagleton buttons found in the mix led Eckart to read about this lesser-known vice presidential candidate. Thomas Eagleton, who suffered from bouts of depression, had to quit the race when several hospitalizations were revealed.

For Eckart, while it is interesting to observe the trajectory of famous politicians through their rising offices, it’s even more fascinating to see the names from unsuccessful bids. “You never end of hearing about them as soon as they lose, but it’s really cool to see how many people participated in the process.”

See the photos and read more in the Harvard Gazette

Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy represent three candidates from the 1960 presidential election.Photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

“For me, the excitement was to look back in time. I can remember campaigns that were going on in the ’70s. And it was really fun for me to look back and say, ‘I remember that.’” -- Leslie Donnell


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