Volunteer Impressions (Spring 2005)

by Rick Witschonke

Since my update in the last issue of the ANS Magazine, I have continued work on a variety of interesting projects. There is one in particular, however, that caught my fancy, so I thought I would share it with you.

Even though they are not, strictly speaking, numismatic, the ANS has a large collection of political campaign buttons dating from the late nineteenth century to the present. Many of these have never been properly catalogued, so I was asked to undertake the task. Collections Manager Elena Stolyarik took me into the vault, and pulled out a large tray overflowing with about 500 unattributed buttons, pins, and other items relating to the 1940 presidential campaign of Republican candidate Wendell Willkie against incumbent Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. An interesting challenge!

My next stop was the ANS Library, where Librarian Frank Campbell quickly retrieved a variety of books on the subject, including the standard catalogues by Ted Hake, which proved very useful. In the references, the buttons were organized by size (there were four basic sizes), and then alphabetically by the legend on the button. By the end of the first day, I had the group (which had now expanded to six trays) in reasonable order, and I had found most of the buttons in Hake.

The next day, I went to the vault again, only to discover a second tray with yet another 500 Willkie items. So much for my previous neat lines of buttons. Fortunately, our 2005 Schwartz Fellow, Lauren Jacobi, was available to help me, and between us we managed to get most of the items reasonably well-organized.

As I worked with the material, I became fascinated by the slogans on the buttons. The 1940 Campaign was a bit before my time, so I knew very little about the issues involved, but before long I could see patterns emerging. And, by the time I was done, I felt a tangible connection to that time 65 years ago, and the strong feelings of the participants, all evoked by these little bits of metal which connected us.

One major theme related to F.D.R.’s economic and social policies over his previous two terms (1933-1940), and in particular “The New Deal.” For example: “NEW DEAL A MIS-DEAL” (Hake 2178); “NO NEW DEAL. WE WANT A SQUARE DEAL:” (H. 2189); and “FLASH! YOU CAN’T HAVE ROOSEVELT AND PROSPERITY TOO” (H. 2146). Employment vs. public relief was another sub-theme: “JOBS, NOT RELIEF WITH WILLKIE” (H. 2166); “NEW DEAL CONSOLATION: 9,000,000 UNEMPLOYED” (H. 93); “WITH WILLKIE WE DON’T NEED RELIEF” (H. 2233); “ROOSEVELT AND RELIEF, WILLKIE AND WORK” (H. 2202), and “LET’S GIVE FRANKLIN UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE” (H. 2168). The W.P.A. came in for criticism as the “WORST PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION” (H. 2235). And Roosevelt’s deficit spending was a major target, as his initials were reinterpreted as “FRANKLIN DEFICIT ROOSEVELT” (H. 2137); and “FINANCIAL DEBAUCHERY RUN-RIOT” (H. 126). And then we have “60 BILLION BUCKS. WHEE” (H. 2093). Many of these slogans are rather ironic, since Willkie actually supported many of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and was, in fact, a Democrat himself until 1939.

Another major issue at the time was, of course, the war. France had already fallen to the Nazis in early 1940, but the United States remained neutral. Here again, the candidates’ respective positions on the issue were somewhat ambiguous. Initially, Willkie criticized Roosevelt for the lack of military preparedness. But, when Roosevelt responded by increasing military contracts and instituting a draft, Willkie changed tactics and started accusing Roosevelt of war-mongering. This engendered: “PEACE! WILLKIE. IT’S WONDERFUL” (H. 2198); and “WALLACE AND ROOSEVELT” (H. 95. Wallace was Roosevelt’s running mate, and the three initials spelled WAR).

It is interesting that neither of these major issues (the economy nor the war) was the primary focus of the Willkie campaign. Instead, it was Roosevelt’s unprecedented bid for a third term that sparked the most criticism, at least as measured by the buttons. George Washington had set the precedent of a two term limit, and his lead had been followed up to this point. Among the many critical slogans are: “LINCOLN DIDN’T, WASHINGTON WOULDN’T, ROOSEVELT SHOULDN’T” (H.2171); “NO THIRD TERM” (H. 2190); “DON’T BE A THIRD TERMITE” (H. 2128. The sloganeers couldn’t resist a pun: good, bad, or indifferent); “NO THIRD TERMITES” (H. 2187): “8 YEARS IS ENOUGH” (H. 2133); “I’M BEHIND THE EIGHT BALL” (H. 75); “THIRD TERM GRAB? IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE” (H. 2217); “THIRD TERM TABOO. 23 SKIDOO” (H. 2218); “TWO GOOD TERMS DESERVE A REST” (H.2200); and “1ST TERM GOOD. 2ND TERM GOOD ENOUGH. 3RD TERM GOOD FOR NOTHING” (H. 2139).

Then, there are a number of amusing references to potential erectile dysfunction: “NO MAN IS GOOD THREE TIMES” (H. 86); “TWO TIMES IS ENOUGH FOR ANY MAN” (H. 91); and “CONFUCIUS SAY. . . MAN WHO STAND UP TWICE, NO GOOD THIRD TIME” (H. 90). There are even a few prescient allusions to a possible fourth term: “NO FOURTH TERM” (H. 2181); “NO FOURTH TERM EITHER” (H. 98); and “HE WILL BE HARDER TO BEAT THE FOURTH TIME THAN THE THIRD. DO YOUR DUTY NOW”. And several buttons equate a third term with the Nazi Third Reich, and the Communist Third International: “NO THIRD INTERNATIONAL, THIRD REICH, THIRD TERM” (H. 96); “THIRD INTERNATIONAL. THIRD REICH., THIRD TERM???” (H. 2216); and “RUSSIA, 3RD INTERNATIONAL. GERMANY, 3RD REICH. U.S.A., 3RD TERM???” (H. 2210).

A related theme portrays Roosevelt as a regal figure, attempting to establish a dynasty: “NO CROWN FOR FRANKLIN” (H. 2179); “NO FRANKLIN THE FIRST” (H. 2182); “NO ROYAL FAMILY” (H. 2186); “NO ROOSEVELT DYNASTY” (H. 2083): “MY FRIENDS, BUT NOT MY SUBJECTS” (H. 2176); “WE WANT ROOSEVELT TO ABDICATE” (H. 2224); “WILLKIE. LOYAL NOT ROYAL” (H. 2230); “DE-THRONEMENT DAY, NOV 5TH” (H. 2123); and “VOTE FOR WILLKIE IF YOU WANT TO VOTE AGAIN” (H. Unlisted). Some saw Roosevelt as a dictator rather than a king: “DICTATOR? NOT FOR US” (H. 2125); “CAUTION. WE NEED WILLKIE, NOT DICTATORSHIP” (H. 82); “NO DICTATOR LATER!” (H. 2180); “DICTATORS DON’T DEBATE” (H. 2124); and “NAPOLEON MET HIS WATERLOO, FRANK. YOU WILL TOO” (H. 103).

Apparently, at some point Roosevelt injudiciously referred to himself as an “indispensable man”. This provided fodder for several Willkie buttons: “THERE IS NO INDISPENSABLE MAN” (H. 2215); and “ADAM WAS THE ONLY INDISPENSABLE MAN” (H. Unlisted).

Roosevelt’s family also came under fire, especially his wife Eleanor: “WE DON’T WANT ELEANOR EITHER” (H. 2223); “ELEANOR START PACKING. THE WILLKIES ARE COMING” (H. 2135); “ELEANOR? NO SOAP!” (H. 2134); and “RATHER AN HOUR WITH EDITH THAN ‘A DAY’ WITH ELEANOR” (H. 2200, Edith was Willkie’s wife; Eleanor wrote a newspaper column called “A day with Eleanor.”). And then there is an enigmatic button with the legend: “ROOSEVELT IS BUYING AQUACADE TO KEEP ELEANOR HO(L)ME” (H. 105). I did some research, and discovered that Aquacade was Billy Rose’s attraction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, starring Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller, and Eleanor Holm. So I concluded that Eleanor Roosevelt must have enjoyed the Aquacade, and that the button was an indirect criticism of her active involvement in the Washington political scene, rather than spending time at Hyde Park. But that did not explain the small “L” inserted into the word “HOME”. So I did a bit of research on Eleanor Holm. I discovered that she was a talented swimmer who had competed in the 1928 Olympics at the age of 15, and then won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1932 Olympics. She then married band leader Art Jarrett, and became a singer in his band. She made the team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but on the ship over, she insisted on partying with the celebrities in 1st Class, rather than follwing team rules. As a result, Avery Brundage disqualified her from competing. She had her revenge, however, spending the Olympics as a correspondent, and attending parties with Goebbels, Goring, and Hitler, all of whom she found charming. Upon returning, she had a short career as a Hollywood actress, and then joined Rose (who she later married) in Aquacade. In 1939 she would have been 26, and it occurred to me that, given F.D.R.’s known marital indiscretions, the button might be a sly allusion to an actual or alleged affair between Holm and the President. Holm died in 2004 at age 91.

Roosevelt’s eldest son James (1907-1991) served as a secretary to F.D.R. in 1937-38, and was awarded a Captain’s commission in the Marine Corps in 1940. This sparked a number of protests: “I WANNA BE A CAPTAIN TOO” (H. 2158), “PAPA: I WANNA BE A CAPTAIN TOO” (H. 2195); and “MY SON IS NOT A CAPTAIN” (H. Unlisted). There were also concerns that James would eventually succeed his father:” “NO CROWN PRINCE JIMMY” (H. 2078); “PAPA: I DON’T WANT TO RESIGN” (H. 2087); and “PAPA: THEY WON’T LET ME RESIGN” (H. 2197). Even Roosevelt’s “black sheep” son Elliott (1910-1990) was not spared. Apparently, he was given a government job, which provoked: “ELLIOTT. 316.00 A MONTH, ME TOO” (H. Unlisted). And Roosevelt’s family home at Hyde Park was also a target: “DR. JECKYLL OF HYDE PARK” (H. 2129); and “‘ROOSEVELT’ HIDE AT HYDE!” (H. 2206).

On a lighter note, there were a number of baseball allusions: “FORCE FRANKLIN OUT AT THIRD” (H. 2147); “OUT! STEALING THIRD” (H. 2194); “STRIKE THREE. F.D. YOU’RE OUT” (H. 109); and “WENDELL PITCHING. FRANKLIN OUT” (H. Unlisted).

In addition to buttons, there were a wide variety of pins, ribbons and other memorabilia. For example: a fabric shirt-shaped pin inscribed “I’D GIVE MY SHIRT FOR WILLKIE” (H. 182); a button with the legend “FOR PRESIDENT WILL-” with a key attached (H. Unlisted); and a key-shaped pin with the letters “WILL” on it (H.2366).

In all, it took us a week to organize and catalogue the buttons (we ended up with 14 trays of Willkies alone). For me, it was an enjoyable experience which once again demonstrated how small, commonplace objects can teach us about the history of a period, and give us a sense of connection to those times past. Thank goodness there are organizations like the ANS to accumulate these objects, and make them available for study.

For Further Reading:

Ted Hake, Encyclopedia of Political Buttons: United States 1896-1972. York, PA: Hake’s Americana and Collectibles, 2004.