By Russell McCulley Photographed by Jeff JohnstonButtons from the 1900 presidential election featuring opponents William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan.
Of all the framed photographs and certificates decorating a hallway in Fran Bussie’s Baton Rouge home, one in particular stands out: a snapshot of her husband, Victor, posing with then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and a beaming Jackie. As political mementos go, it’s a gem—and one that almost got tossed out with the trash.
“I was in Vic’s office one day and saw this box,” says Bussie, a long-time Democratic Party activist whose husband served more than 40 years as president of the Louisiana chapter of the AFL-CIO. “He said, ‘oh, it’s just a bunch of old photographs,’ ” she recalls with a laugh. “Vic throws everything out.”
Fran, on the other hand, saved up several decades-worth of political buttons from her years as a delegate to the party’s national conventions and as a prominent supporter of the doomed Equal Rights Amendment: a collection that she recently donated to the political museum in the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
Buttons, bumper stickers and banners—the ephemera of political campaigns past—have long been prized by political junkies and history buffs. And Louisiana, where politics and history never lack color, is fertile ground for collectors.
A copy of Huey P. Long’s autobiography and a button from Long’s Share Our Wealth Society.
With the release this mid-term election year of a new film version of “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren’s barely fictionalized account of the rise and fall of Huey P. Long, Louisiana politics are again front and center. And Long memorabilia—particularly Huey and his successor in the Long dynasty, “Uncle” Earl K. Long—is as popular, and valuable, as ever.
“Some of the old political pins were more like jewelry,” says Mary Louise Prudhomme, director of the Old State Capitol, as she produces a couple of buttons from the museum’s collection: one emblazoned with Huey’s slogan, “Every Man a King,” and another alluding to Earl Long’s often-questioned mental state that says, “I Ain’t Crazy – Vote for Uncle Earl.” Prudhomme herself collects artifacts from the Jack and Jackie Kennedy era—“mostly books and a couple of reproductions of paintings,” she says—and is always on the lookout for donations to add to the museum’s collection of Louisiana political ephemera, a cache that includes an old ballot box, a baseball signed by Hillary Rodham Clinton that belonged to former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin and, of course, a trove of Huey P. Long memorabilia.
“People are just fascinated by Louisiana politics,” she says. “Everyone, no matter where they’re from, wants to know about Huey P. Long. Our politics are intriguing, mysterious, corrupt from time to time. But everybody’s fascinated by it.”
Signs of the Times
A coin-style pin from Rutherford B. Hayes 1876 election campaign.
Political buttons came into commerce around the turn of the 20th century, before the era of high-tech campaigns and when political stumping involved whistle-stops and speeches from the backs of trucks or trains. With no television commercials to provide images and sway opinions, candidates would court voters with souvenir buttons and more useful items such as combs and emery boards.
Today, many of those items are highly collectible and fetch handsome prices. At the venerable Royal Street shop James H. Cohen & Sons, there is a display case dedicated to political buttons and other artifacts, including a copy of Huey P. Long’s autobiography and a $500 coin-style pin from Rutherford B. Hayes’ 1876 presidential campaign. “Buttons as we know them didn’t come into use until 1896,” says Jerry Cohen, pointing out a pair of early buttons featuring the opponents in the 1900 election, William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan.
A pin of Franklin D. Roosevelt from the National Democratic Convention in 1944.
Collectors tend to specialize, Cohen says, focusing on a particular era, party or politician. JFK is a perennial favorite; the shop has a respectable selection of Ronald Reagan memorabilia and, of course, a tiny “Every Man a King” button from Long’s Share Our Wealth Society. “That’s one of the scarcest,” he says.
For most collectors, it’s the history, not the potential value that drives them. “For me, it’s the historical aspect. I’ve always loved history, especially political history,” says Bussie, although she insists she’s “not really a collector. I’d just come back from these conventions and put everything in a box.”
In politics, history has a way of repeating itself, giving some artifacts a new currency. Bussie fondles a yellow button from the 1992 presidential race that says “Give ‘Em Hell, Hillary,” and chuckles. “That might turn out to be an important piece,” she says.