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Historic Campaign Buttons Displayed at Monmouth College

Oct 3, 2016

Monmouth College alumnus Brad Nahrstadt has a collection of nearly 1,600 buttons from presidential campaigns. Some date back to 1896 when Republican William McKinley defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan. 

Nahrstadt said he collected his first buttons when he was a junior at the college and volunteered to help with the 1988 campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis. The campaign gave the buttons to him as a way of thanking him for his work.

Nahrstadt put the buttons away in a drawer and didn’t think much of it at the time. But that changed four years later when he was a law student at the University of Illinois.

“There was a table with basically everybody who was running on both the Democratic side and the Republican side for the nominations that year. And I picked up a button from everybody. And then when I went home for break, I found the Dukakis buttons, pulled those out, my mother gave me a Kennedy button that she had kept from the 1960 elections, and it snowballed from there,” Nahrstadt said.

Nahrstadt has since visited antique shops to buy the buttons in person and he's bought buttons through auctions on eBay. He estimated he spent around $100,000 dollars for the entire collection, which he said has been appraised at around $200,000.

One of Nahrstadt’s favorite buttons in the collection comes from a candidate who didn't come close to winning: 1924 Democratic candidate John W. Davis.

“The Democrats knew they were going to lose and they were going to lose big. They didn’t spend a lot of money on buttons. It’s very unusual to find a button from that era in a four-inch size. So to find a Davis button that big, in that condition, was exciting,” Nahrstadt said.

Some of his other favorites include a George McGovern button that has a drawing of the 1972 Democratic candidate as Robin Hood, and one from 1964 for Democrat Lyndon Johnson that countered Republican candidate Barry Goldwater by using atomic symbols for gold and water.

“The Johnson camp said, ‘Okay, we need to do something with that.’ Because he’s coming out with all these AU H2O things. So they came up with a button that says, 'C5 H4 N4 O3 on AU H2O.' Top the chemical symbol for uric acid. So basically, that button says ‘Piss on Goldwater’ in chemical symbols,” Nahrstadt said.

Nahrstadt also uses the buttons to tell some of the back stories of Presidential campaigns. In the 1896 race, for example, he said the main issue was whether the United States would keep the gold standard or adopt the silver standard. Republicans wanted the gold standard, while Democrats favored silver. And buttons for candidates that year reflected that with either a gold or silver ring on them.

Those buttons and more from Nahrstadt’s collection are on display at the Monmouth College Hewes Library until November 8, which is Election Day.