KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. — The name Alton B. Parker is probably unknown to most of the voters who will cast their ballots for president Nov. 8, but in 1904, he was as famous as either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Parker, a New York state judge, was the Democratic nominee for the nation’s highest office that year. He lost to Theodore Roosevelt in a landslide.
While the country might have forgotten Parker, Russell Rubert of King of Prussia has not. Rubert can even name Parker’s running mate. It was Henry G. Davis, who, at 80, might be the oldest man ever to stand for the vice presidency.
Rubert, president of the Norristown Preservation Society and a board member of the King of Prussia Historical Society, is an avid collector who has turned his home on Hillview Road into a showcase for View Master viewers, antique telephones, and, most recently, political campaign buttons, which he has painstakingly mounted on a pair of display triptychs.
“I haven’t counted them,” he said in an interview, “but I’ve got at least a couple for every candidate from at least the 1896 election on up.”
According to Rubert, 1896 was the year campaign buttons began to be mass-produced. It was also the year Republican William McKinley beat Democratic William Jennings Bryan in the race for the White House.
Not all of Rubert’s buttons are genuine. Many are reproductions, which he sometimes prefers because they are less expensive than the originals. The oldest he has been able to verify as authentic, which dates from 1920, is a metal lapel pin embossed with the name “Cox,” for James M. Cox, who ran unsuccessfully against Warren Harding. In a visual pun, it is shaped like a rooster.
Another authentic jewel, from 1936, bears the name of Republican Alf Landon and is trimmed with felt sunflower leaves, symbol of Kansas, Landon’s home state.
“You never know,” Rubert said about an item’s authenticity, but “the Alf Landon one, that’s undeniable.”
Rubert has built his collection by haunting garage sales and flea markets, and of course, cruising the internet.
“The internet has been the big thing,” he said. “I don’t go out searching for them all the time, because if I did that, I’d have a million buttons.”
He also has a few selection criteria to keep his collection from getting too big. For example, he purchases only those buttons officially issued by a campaign, a limitation he deems essential in an age when anyone can make their own buttons using a computer at home.
Nevertheless, the number of presidential hopefuls over the years ensures an ever-expanding collection, especially since it includes many candidates who did not win their party’s nomination. One button, from 1976, displays the names of Ronald Regan and Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, who lost the Republican nomination that year to Gerald Ford and Bob Dole. Another, from the 1968 primaries, promotes Hubert Humphrey for president with Robert F. Kennedy as his running mate.
Rubert also owns several issue-oriented buttons, such as once from 1940 opposing Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented run for a third term.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, his favorite comes from Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign. He voted for George McGovern that year, he said, but he likes the button for its stark typeface and its rich colors. It was also easy to find on the web.
“Blue and red Nixon buttons were all over the place,” he said.
A man of such varied interests brings a great deal of prior knowledge to the art of collecting, but Rubert is still occasionally surprised by what he learns. In addition to presidential campaigns, he collects buttons from Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial races, and not long ago, he discovered he had overlooked a small item of recent political history.
“I try to keep up,” he said, “but I didn’t know some guy named Mike Stack is lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.”
Information from: The Times Herald, http://www.timesherald.com/