Ted’s Top-12 Collectibles from “Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons”


Ted Hake is a pop culture expert, founder of Hake’s Auctions and supporter of the Button Museum. But foremost, Ted is a vintage button expert. He is also co-author of Button Power: 125 Years of Saying it With Buttons.” Today Ted shares a dozen of his favorites from more than six decades of collecting and selling buttons.


 

I have been a pinback button collector and dealer for 63 of my 80 years. I love the color and design of the best ones and I see each button as a survivor representing a moment in the life of America.

Buttons led me to create America’s first and most diversified collectibles auction in 1967; then named Hake’s Americana Collectibles and now, after our 50th anniversary, simply Hake’s Auctions. Buttons remain well represented in Hake’s Auctions along with many other historical and popular culture categories.

While we hold the world record price for a pinback button of $185,850 (for a 1.25-inch button picturing the 1920 Democratic presidential ticket of James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt), we also hold records in the collecting specialties of comic books, Disneyana, Mego figures, Pokémon, Star Wars and Transformers.


Get Ted’s book on hobbyDB here

 

During my 63 years as a collector/dealer, I have seen, bought, and sold a ton of buttons and the best thing is, I keep discovering great new finds, so it is truly an open-ended hobby. Suffice it to say, my auctions have documented the world of pinbacks back to their invention in 1896.

From thousands of auction photo images and with access to several outstanding collections, my co-author Christen Carter, owner of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Co. and founder of the world’s only Button Museum, and I carefully selected over 5,000 candidates for our book and then ruthlessly cut that to only 2,000 of the most historical and graphically interesting images in twelve major categories.

When Christian Braun asked me to pick my 12 favorites, I felt like a parent asked to name a favorite child, but I accepted his challenge. Thus, here is a look at my favorites, one per category. You would certainly not pick the ones that I did, but I hope my choices inspire you to enjoy the imagery of pinbacks and explore further.

 

ADVERTISING

Ted Hake

Nine lovely ladies bob in the blue ocean waters off Coney Island, Brooklyn. These gals are students of the “Mac Levy Quick Trolley System” of “Swimming Taught In Six Lessons.

Mac (born Max) Levy grew up as the proverbial 98-pound weakling, but with diet and exercise transformed himself into a vaudeville and lecture career using the moniker “Young Hercules.” Levy established a gymnasium and health club, invented a famous rowing machine for exercise and still had time to offer swimming lessons.

This 1.75-inch diameter masterpiece was created by the Baltimore Badge & Novelty Co. circa 1904.

 

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Ted Hake

This diverse category covers everything from an 1896 button showing circus impresarios Barnum & Bailey to Charlie Brown’s Snoopy promoting the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con.

For my favorite button, I will pick a 1970 big four-inch children’s book promotional for “In The Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak. This is a prejudiced and very personal choice because Maurice included me in his book in the guise of a “Hake Coffee” can tucked amidst his cityscape of buildings.

I met Maurice, one of a quartet of earliest collectors of 1930’s Mickey Mouse collectibles, in 1969. Besides selling him vintage Disney licensed Mickey merchandise, he would also buy bread and milk advertising buttons from the 1930s and 1940s. I knew he was working on a biographical sequel to his earlier Caldecott award winning children’s book “Where The Wild Things Are,” but his affording me a little piece of Night Kitchen real estate was the surprise of a lifetime.

 

CAMPAIGNS & CAUSES

Ted Hake

In 1896, when Whitehead & Hoag of Newark, New Jersey, invented the button as we know it today, its primary use that year was for the presidential contest between William McKinley (Republican) and William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). Since then, thousands upon thousands of campaign buttons for every political office as well as every imaginable political or social issue have been made.

From all of these, my favorite is an unassuming 15/16-inch slogan button from Fall, 1964 reading “Free Speech” issued by the “F.S.M.” (Free Speech Movement) at the University of California, Berkeley campus. The button’s roots go back to a September letter from the Dean of Students Katherine Towle to all off-campus groups registered with her office decreeing no off-campus groups could collect money or solicit support for political action on the 26 feet of brick walkway at the campus entrance at Bancroft and Telegraph Avenue.

Representatives from eighteen student groups met with the dean. Despite some compromise, the ban of advocacy, solicitation of donations, and sales of bumper strips and buttons remained. Members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) defied the ban and campus police arrested CORE activist Jack Weinberg. As police carried him (he went limp) to their car, students surrounded the car and deflated its tires. The following 32 hours were filled with chanting, singing and speeches, most notably by de facto leader, Mario Savio, from atop the police car.

Eventually, students formed the United Front committee. They met with university president Clark Kerr and signed the Pact of Oct. 2, which ended the sit-in (but not the problems). A few days later, this button appeared documenting the first mass act of civil disobedience on an American college campus in the 1960s- a harbinger of rebellion and revolution that filled the second half of the decade.

 

EVENTS

Ted Hake

The earliest button to display the date of an event (that we have so far discovered) was ordered from Whitehead & Hoag by the Indiana State Medical Society for their annual two-day meeting to be held in Fort Wayne, Indiana, May 28-29, 1896.

Ever since, the button has heralded upcoming events and served as a tangible souvenir of the event itself. This category features outstanding eye-catching designs and among the best are those issued for street fairs, carnivals, and harvest celebrations from 1898 through the first decade of the 20th century.

This 1.75-inch button from 1899 raises the expectation level for “Wichita’s (Kansas) Street Fair & Carnival by the artistic device of exaggeration with two long legged jester characters holding aloft one giant ear of corn.

 

ICE BREAKERS

Ted Hake

All buttons are conversation starters, but these novelty buttons have little other reason to exist. These facilitators of human interaction might be worn by the person sitting next to you who wants to tell you a joke or just strike up some small talk. Mostly, they are humorous, showing what people found funny in their day. Some are public service announcements or points of pride, while others just try to stir interest.

I picked this 1967 button for two personal reasons. First, I was working on a degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, so the button’s slogan was relevant to me. Second, I first saw this button in my favorite pioneering collectibles hole-in-the-wall store on South 18th Street, Philadelphia, named S. Moss Curios.

Its proprietor, Seymour Moss, was instrumental in the trading of my collector’s hat for that of a dealer. In response to my asking if he had any presidential campaign buttons, Seymour reach up to the top shelf of a tiny but tall closet, pulled out a cigar box and flipped the lid open to reveal at least 50 identical 1.25-inch buttons picturing Franklin Roosevelt and his 1940 running mate Henry Wallace.

Instead of being thrilled, I was appalled because I immediately questioned the wisdom of spending money to collect buttons if what I thought was so scarce was so plentiful. Thankfully, I quickly came to realize that Seymour’s hoard of a single design from 1940 was very much the exception rather than the rule, but it was another fateful encounter on my road to full time button dealing.

 

NATURE

Ted Hake

The very first buttons issued as sets for collectors appeared in 1897 from the 1896 inventor of the celluloid covered pinback button Whitehead & Hoag. The company produced sets picturing animals, birds, and flowers.

For my favorite of this genre, I have picked the first Earth Day button, an event I attended, in Philadelphia on the day of observance April 22, 1970. Earth Day, now a world-wide event, was sparked by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book titled Silent Spring which started a groundswell of opposition to the poisoning of the Earth and its occupants. A few years later Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson proposed a national day of observance.

What was called “Earth Week” was organized in Philadelphia with events and speakers culminating on April 22. There were simultaneous coast-to-coast rallies that drew 20 million Americans. The Philadelphia committee selected this design by David Powell as its official button produced as a 1-3/8-inch lithographed tin button by Horne Badge Co. in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

 

ORGANIZATIONS

Ted Hake

Humans need to feel a sense of belonging, and buttons can help like-minded people find each other or identify as members of a group. That group identification would surely apply to the cattlemen sporting this 1.75-inch button in 1905.

Two years prior to Oklahoma statehood, members of the Oklahoma LiveStock Association assembled in Guthrie to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their organization with their largest convention to date. Newspapers reported the attendance of “prominent cattlemen” and that business sessions would be “interspersed with numerous features of entertainment provided by the citizens of Guthrie.”

An enjoyable time was had by all, except, in the end, this happy cow couple.

 

PEOPLE

Ted Hake

From Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee portrait button to the 1964 Beatles invasion fan button and onto modern day the famous and infamous adorn pinbacks. My favorite shows Geronimo: Medicine Man of the Bedonkohe Band of the Apache Tribe and a U.S. prisoner of war from 1886 until his 1909 death.

After spending most of his life fighting Mexican and American occupation of Apache lands, Geronimo found himself a prisoner at Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, with other exiled Chiricahua Apaches. At least he avoided the Arizona authorities who wanted to execute him. Geronimo became a tourist attraction in Florida and the government then allowed him to travel, with armed guards, to various events such as the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, this 1899 Phoenix Carnival event (the button also names The Palace, a saloon), and both world’s fairs in Buffalo (1901) and St. Louis (1904).

Geronimo even rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade, but he died still a prisoner in 1909 at the Fort Sill, Oklahoma, hospital.

 

PLACES

Ted Hake

Pinback buttons began to reflect a global perspective in early 1897 when Whitehead & Hoag offered collectors “Flags of Different Nations” at a cost of five cents each or $1.20 for all sixty countries.

Nowadays, you can find buttons focusing from the Statue of Liberty to the waves of Waikiki. My favorite “place” button is geographically more or less mid-way between these two existing as a pair of street corners in San Francisco named Haight-Ashbury.

Two early San Francisco leaders, Henry Haight and Munroe Ashbury, are honored by signs at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. The street signs bearing their names on this 1.75-inch psychedelic and Day-glo colored button are emblematic of the 1960s movement. In the 1950s, overflow from San Francisco’s North Beach bohemian community had settled in the quaint and less expensive Haight-Ashbury area. In June 1966, an estimated 15,000 hippies occupied the large, low-rent Victorian houses.

By the following 1967 Summer of Love, 100,000 had been drawn to the area and overwhelmed it. School openings in September reduced the pressure, but on Oct. 6, 1967, the Diggers street theatre group performed a funeral procession complete with a trinket-filled casket to proclaim “the death of the hippie.”

 

SPORTS

Ted Hake

The sporting world, be it baseball or bicycle racing, was an early adopter of the button. Often distribution took the form of a tobacco or chewing gum give-away issued with such products as Sweet Caporal cigarettes in 1912 or Button Gum in the 1930s. Baseball leads all sports in button variety with most of those picturing individual players and sold at stadiums as souvenirs.

A fond memory influences my choice of this 1.75-inch stadium (Cleveland, 1949) button picturing the great pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige. Satchel’s career spanned the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues, crammed full of record setting performances, awards, then Hall of Fame membership.

Beginning with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts (1926) and ending with the Kansas City Athletics (1965), Satchel’s career included at least one game in my York, Pennsylvania, hometown. My personal look at Satchel in action came in 1952 when he was with the St. Louis Browns (who became the Baltimore Orioles the next year).

The Browns came to town to play their farm team the York White Roses (1884-1969). My baseball tutor, my uncle Carl, took me to the nighttime exhibition game when I was nine. The local boys put up a good fight but late in the game Satchel came to the mound as a reliever, fanned the side (with just nine pitches as I recall it) and clinched the win for the Browns.

A memorable night.

 

TRANSPORTATION

Ted Hake

Soon after the button’s 1896 debut, every existing mode of transportation was being colorfully portrayed and vying for attention on hats, jackets, and shirts. Vehicle makers drove button production with their advertising. Foremost were makers of the newly invented “safety” bicycle followed by producers of the dominant family vehicle types: the buggy, the carriage, and the farm wagon.

In 1898, my favorite in this category appeared, the first automobile button. It portrays two fashionably dressed married couples in the front and rear seats of their open-air Montgomery Ward Electric Horseless Carriage. Just a few years after this, buttons appeared for lighter-than-air dirigibles and then, around 1910, buttons for aviation exhibitions.

Space related buttons of the fictional sort first appeared in the 1930s, inspired by comic strips. “Real” space related buttons began with America’s first man in space, Alan B. Shepard, who on May 5, 1961, piloted his Mercury program capsule named Freedom 7 on a sub-orbital flight.

 

WAR & ANTI-WAR

Ted Hake

Buttons began covering wars in real time beginning with the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Also, from the earliest button years, they portrayed events and notables of American conflicts back to the Revolutionary War and, especially, the events and then reunions of both northern and southern soldiers of America’s Civil War. My favorite is this 1.75-inch button issued to inspire those on the home front shortly after Congress declared war on Germany April 16, 1917. I was personally introduced to World War I and buttons in 1948 when I was five.

An antique dealer friend of my mother’s, while standing in her old furniture laden barn, presented me with a small rectangular box covered in plain gray paper, but filled with various colorful buttons used to raise funds via bond sales known as Liberty Loans.

This little box became my first piece of history and lived in my secret drawer at one end of a drop leaf table in our living room. There it stayed until I rediscovered buttons at age seventeen and began taking the baby steps that eventually led to Hake’s Auctions and my life’s work and love affair with pinbacks.

If you want to show your buttons or have questions leave a Comment below!

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Isaac N
Isaac N
1 month ago

Great buttons and fascinating history. Thanks for putting this post together, Ted!

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