‘Every button tells a story’: Washington’s political memorabilia show and sale returns

Collectors will descend on the nation’s capital once again to swap buttons and tales

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt buttons are seen at the home of Robert Fratkin, a vendor in the American Political Items Collectors regional show and sale hosted by the National Capital Chapter.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt buttons are seen at the home of Robert Fratkin, a vendor in the American Political Items Collectors regional show and sale hosted by the National Capital Chapter. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 17, 2022 at 6:30am

Jonathan D. Salant has a special place in his heart for former Rep. Jim Maloney. 

One night in 1998, the Washington correspondent for NJ Advance Media was interviewing Maloney over the phone when he turned to see his son get up and steady himself.

“As I’m on the phone with him, my son, who was then 14 months old, pulls himself up on the garbage can in the kitchen and starts walking,” he said. “So of course I had to get a Maloney button.” 

Salant set out to find a piece of memorabilia to remind him of that moment — it’s something the lifelong button collector has done to chronicle his career covering politics for various publications, including a stint at Congressional Quarterly. 

He wasn’t able to unearth a button from one of the Connecticut Democrat’s congressional campaigns. Instead, a red and blue Jim Maloney for State Senate button now sits in a frame next to a button celebrating his son’s 2010 bar mitzvah.  

This Saturday, Salant will get a chance to continue the search among a deluge of both ultra-valuable collectibles and low-cost trinkets. He’s the main organizer of this year’s American Political Items Collectors show and sale for the group’s National Capital Chapter. 

It’s the 21st installment of the long-running event, and the first time since the pandemic began that the show will be held. Admission is $5, and students are free. A congressional ID will score attendees $1 off. 

American political mementos date back to the inauguration of President George Washington, when supporters wore ribbons or inscribed metal, but the celluloid button known today made its debut in 1896

Salant’s collection includes mostly newer buttons, including a humble green and white one from his father’s unsuccessful bid for local school board. “Every button tells a story,” he said. 

The return of the memorabilia show in Rockville has gotten collectors jazzed at the prospect of once again lingering around tables stuffed with history, greeting old friends and making new ones. It’s ironic, but the act of hunting for relics from hard-fought political wars brings people together, said Christopher Hearn, a retired government employee who lives in northern Virginia. 

“There are just so many people with different backgrounds and political beliefs, but when it comes to collecting, there aren’t any disagreements,” he said. “Everybody enjoys the hobby.” 

The Fratkins’ home in Northwest Washington is a tribute to their collection, with artwork, posters, steins, ashtrays and campaign buttons. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For Robert Fratkin, a Washington financial adviser and longtime collector, the friendships make it worthwhile. First captivated as a teen as he helped put Adlai Stevenson bumper stickers onto cars at the Ventura County fair in the Democrat’s 1956 unsuccessful bid for president, he quickly became immersed. 

“All of a sudden, there I was starting a collection,” said Fratkin, once the national president of APIC and executive editor of The Keynoter, a quarterly journal of political campaign history.

Entering his Northwest Washington home today, visitors might wonder if they stepped into a museum. Like a docent, the 83-year-old Fratkin has a story about almost every item in the place, and he’s happy to tell it. 

The walls are covered with election posters, and the eyes of scowling former presidents follow guests around the room. Shelves of memorabilia from both World Wars sit next to display cases containing George Washington ribbons, English patch boxes and ceramic mugs.

And then there are the buttons, lots of buttons. The bulk of his collection dates from after the debut of the modern campaign button, a dividing date line for many in the field.

The Fratkins keep their home tidy. But even the tops of the radiator cabinets are covered with stuff, like a ceramic statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ashtray.  

“We very much live with history,” said his wife, Susan, a collector in her own right. 

Over decades of gathering tens of thousands of items, the Fratkins have managed to find a couple of dozen that are so rare, they own the only ones. On Saturday the couple will load up their station wagon with duplicates and castoffs from their collection — enough memorabilia to fill nearly four tables — and see if they can help round out someone else’s. 

While many of the exhibitors have been at this for a while, younger people still enter the hobby, Fratkin said, especially around presidential elections. “Every four years you see a spike,” he said. “Some of them drop off, and some of them stay.”

APIC tries to inspire a new generation by hosting an annual internship with the Smithsonian Institution. Students work for six weeks at the National Museum of American History in the political history division. 

Getting started as a collector doesn’t have to be hard. Lots of Washingtonians have unusual political items, like convention badges or buttons, lying around that may seem like junk. They should come to Rockville on Saturday, too, Fratkin said, because a roomful of experts can spot what’s rare and what’s not.

And he’s got a piece of advice for anyone out there — voters, campaign volunteers, journalists or congressional staffers — who may have accumulated political knickknacks over the years and shoved them in a closet.  

“The message is,” he said, “for God’s sake, don’t throw it away.”