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Nahrstadt's collection of presidential campaign buttons a lesson in history

Barry McNamara
Brad Nahrstadt ’89 stands with part of his unique collection of presidential campaign buttons. The collection will be on display during Homecoming weekend.
Brad Nahrstadt’s unique collection of presidential campaign buttons is coming full circle to the place where it began – his alma mater.

The 1989 Monmouth College graduate will speak about his collection at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 30 in the Hewes Library Barnes Electronic Classroom. The talk is part of Homecoming weekend festivities. The buttons will remain on display in Hewes Library until after the Nov. 8 general election.

Nahrstadt’s collection features almost 1,600 buttons from the last 31 presidential elections, including 2016. The collection dates to the first presidential election to utilize modern-day buttons – the 1896 race between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

“This has been a long labor of love,” he said. “There is literally no space left on my basement walls.”

Nahrstadt, who is also a Monmouth trustee, acquired his first presidential campaign buttons because of a political science class with Professor Ira Smolensky. Students were required to complete 15 hours of volunteer campaign work for a candidate, and Nahrstadt chose 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. After logging far more than the required hours while assisting with Dukakis events in the Quad Cities and Des Moines, Iowa, Nahrstadt and fellow volunteers were each given a handful of campaign buttons and other memorabilia.

Four years later, while rummaging through a desk drawer, Nahrstadt came across the buttons and pinned them to a T-shirt, along with some buttons from the current 1992 campaign. His mother chipped in a 1960 John F. Kennedy button, and the rest is presidential campaign button history.

“That’s how it took off,” said Nahrstadt, a partner in the law firm of Lipe Lyons Murphy Nahrstadt & Pontikis in Chicago. “From there, any time I was at an antiques store or a flea market, I was looking for buttons. There was no rhyme or reason to what I collected. If it had to do with a presidential campaign, I grabbed it.”

Nahrstadt soon realized the need for “rhyme and reason,” so he focused his collection on presidential candidates who had received electoral votes. That narrowed his focus to the Republican and Democratic nominees, as well as five others: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert La Follette in 1924, Strom Thurmond in 1948, Robert Byrd in 1960 and George Wallace in 1968.

As one might expect, finding buttons from third-party candidates can be a challenge, but Nahrstadt has succeeded. For each candidate since the advent of the modern-day campaign buttons in 1896, Nahrstadt has acquired enough buttons to fill a 12-by-15 inch shadow box.

He doesn’t have the hardest button to collect – one from the 1920 campaign featuring photos of Democratic nominee James Cox and his running mate, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Known as a “jugate” because of the two photos, that Cox/FDR jugate “would set you back about $65,000,” Nahrstadt said.

He does, however, have one button that cost him a pretty penny – a John W. Davis button from his 1924 campaign against incumbent Republican President Calvin Coolidge.

“Coolidge was extremely popular, and the Democrats knew they were going to lose, no matter who they put up,” Nahrstadt said. “So there were very few things made for Davis, both in terms of design and quantity.”

A large, sepia-toned Davis button does exist. Measuring four inches, “it’s right on the outside size of what’s comfortable to wear,” Nahrstadt said. “There are maybe 30 or 40 in the hobby. About a decade ago, I saw that one was coming up for auction, and it had gone for $10,000 previously.”

Finding the button was the easy part. Convincing “Mrs. N.” that it was essential to acquire said button was the hard part.

The couple reached a compromise. If Nahrstadt acquired the button – no matter the price – he would wait 365 days before buying his next one. On Dec. 31, 2005, Nahrstadt’s bid of $3,602.50 got him the Davis button.

True to his word, his next purchase – a matched set of Woodrow Wilson/Charles Evans Hughes buttons from 1916 – came on Dec. 31, 2006. He knows the dates because he records his acquisitions in a ledger, which he keeps separate from the collection.

“I had the sickness bad,” said Nahrstadt, laughing as he recalled the experience.

He says that his collection allows viewers to quickly discern the major issues from each campaign. For example, the buttons from 1896 are typically trimmed in either gold or silver, representing the debate over whether U.S. currency should remain based on the gold standard or be switched to silver.

Buttons from 1940 play off the concern of FDR running for an unprecedented third term. A Republican button reads, “Washington didn’t, Jefferson wouldn’t, Roosevelt shouldn’t.” It is countered by the pro-Roosevelt button that reads, “Don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream.”

Nahrstadt said the 1964 campaign between Democratic incumbent Lyndon Baines Johnson and GOP challenger Barry Goldwater was “particularly nasty,” which is indicated in his collection. Using Periodic Table shorthand, Goldwater was referred to as “Au H20” on some of his buttons. Johnson supporters countered with “C5H4N4O3" on Au H20.” C5H4N4O3 is the chemical symbol for urine.

Although his shadow boxes are complete for all the major candidates since 1896, Nahrstadt said he would still add items from past elections “if something really speaks to me.”