Collecting political history

Silks, ribbons, jugates, and campaign torches

In this 2020 political season, the landscape abounds with yard signs and bumper stickers, but campaigns from the beginning of the republic have included many more ways that candidates got the attention of voters. Collector John Gingerich, 71, has spent a lifetime searching and saving that political memorabilia, which at one time was one of the largest collections in the Southeast.

knox bannerEach item is a snapshot of time gone by, and Gingerich can interpret and tell a story about each one. With a passion for the tale and the lure of the storyteller, Gingerich unravels a fascinating look at America.

While buttons may be the first thing to come to mind when talking campaigns, according to Gingerich, that doesn’t even scratch the surface. Political paraphernalia has taken many forms over the centuries since George Washington’s inauguration when supporters wore GW pins. Crockery, postcards, parasols, china, books, and even stoves have been marked with a candidate’s likeness at one time or another. Almost anything imaginable has found a place on the campaign trail, and Gingerich has sought them all.

His fascination with collecting and his career as an antique dealer were sparked by his mother who had a fondness for antiques. “My mother was a collector and our home was always full of unusual stuff. I’ve always been a collector, and I wanted to specialize in something. I was interested in history so in the fifth grade I decided on political items.” Although a native of Michigan, Gingerich says falling in love with a Georgian eventually landed him in Athens.

donkey elephantThe first pieces of political history Gingerich acquired were from the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon presidential campaign when he was 11, but the first truly historic piece he collected was an 1868 Grant/Colfax jugate ferrotype (tintype) he found in a junk bowl at a flea market for about 50 cents. A jugate is a piece with two portraits side by side to suggest the closeness of each to the other. Typically this would be a presidential and vice-presidential candidate although sometimes a state or local candidate is included with the presidential candidate.

take your choice button

take your choice button
Racist dog whistle in 1904 campaign. Roosevelt had Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House.

Despite the variety of items he has collected over the years, “I love the old silk ribbons,” he says. Unfortunately, these are treasures that are among the hardest to preserve. The delicate fabric is much more prone to deterioration than hardier items so finding old ones intact is difficult, especially in the South. Heat and moisture contributed to very few surviving.”

Even with collectors seeking out and preserving these items, some pieces only exist in photographs such as memorabilia from Henry Clay’s 1844 campaign in Georgia. “Because of the fragility, says Gingerich, “none or just one or two are left.” He possesses the only known existing silk ribbon featuring Martin Van Buren and his running mate from 1840.

Among the most interesting items he has owned is a musket with a campaign torch that would have been used in a post-Civil War parade. Popular from the 1870s to 1900, these events were exciting spectacles, he says. “In torchlight parades, veterans would march in uniform holding banners for their candidate.”

Gingerich with musket
John Gingerich with his musket torch

The oldest pieces he has ever owned go back to the age of the Founding Fathers and included two Washington clothing buttons from that inauguration. Although he sold a portion of his collection in 2006, he still has 1830s and 1840s tokens along with his 1800s ribbons.

Gingerich has conducted his searches at estate sales, auctions, antique shops, Craigslist, and collector shows. His two most valuable pieces include a Van Buren jugate ribbon and an 1840 William Henry Harrison silk campaign flag, which sold for quite a bit.

For people who are interested in political memorabilia, Gingerich recommends looking at Ted Hake’s Encyclopedia of Political Buttons. He also recommends the American Political Items Collectors website. The APIC is a non-profit organization, dedicated to collecting, preserving and studying political campaign materials.

Founded in 1945, the organization has several chapters across the country, including the Dixie Chapter in the South. Among other activities, the APIC works with the Smithsonian and other museums to promote the education of American politics using campaign artifacts. Several specialty chapters cater to specific interests including the political parties, individual presidents and even topics such as women’s suffrage.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Gingerich’s collection is the knowledge that he has amassed with it. Each item sparks a history lesson, and he can recall each party’s candidate from every election, even those of third parties. Platforms and issues that have formed America from slavery to suffrage are catalogued in his memory.

Cox-Roosevelt button
Rare campaign button

Ever the inveterate collector, he still pines for a few items. In 1920 and 1924 very few pieces were produced, he says, making memorabilia from these campaigns hard to find. One that has eluded him is a jugate from a convention in Georgia.

“It’s a button picturing James Cox and Roosevelt produced in Muskogee County. I’d like to have that,” says Gingerich. And from 1924 John Davis and his running mate Charles Bryan are featured on a tintype from a Utah state convention. “It’s another jugate that’s rare. I’d like to find one of those!”

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Kelly Capers
Kelly Capers is a freelance editor and journalist who facilitated a writers’ conference held for many years at UGA.

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