As Barack Obama took the stage in Grant Park on Nov. 4, history was made and birth was given to a collectibles craze the likes of which younger Americans had never experienced.
“What eventually becomes national treasure are those things associated not only with a famous person, but a pivotal moment in time—the inkwell that Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, for example,” the Smithsonian Institution's Harry R. Rubenstein tells CityBeat.
Before you could say, “That one,” all things Obama sprouted up online, igniting a cultural blaze reminiscent of the Elvis-slept-here era. With a starting bid of $50,000, a Pennsylvania bowling lane where Obama threw some gutter balls popped up on eBay, as well as a $500,000 starting bid for a West Virginia billiards table where the now president-elect shot some pool in May during his campaign. “Historical significance will live through the life of this table,” the auction promises.
But don't go spending Junior's college fund yet—Rubenstein says personal significance is key. “I think that when people want to go out and collect this moment, which is a historic moment, they need to find those things that represent their own activism and engagement in the process or something that sort of speaks to them,” he says. “In some ways, the more personal meaning, the more meaningful it will be in time, as well. If items that are mass-produced and that people collect just for the sake of collecting don't speak to you, they probably aren't going to speak in time and history, either.”
Rubenstein, who serves as chair and curator of the National Museum of American History's Division of Politics and Reform, traveled to major campaign stops alongside colleague Larry Bird, picking up yard signs, buttons, posters and some “funny convention hats” along the way. “One thing that's sort of interesting about the Obama campaign,” he says, “is not only their own signage and symbolism they developed, but the outpouring of individual artists that have produced pieces that somehow have found their way into the mass market.”
On the local front, San Diego eBayers are trying to catch the memorabilia bandwagon:
• Joe Leonard (seller id: joseph_92117) wedded Obama and Rocky, creating the domain name Barocky Obama.com and is trying to sell it for $20,000.
• A more modest 99 cents can get you one of user zatyko's official Obama whoopie cushions in one of three vibrant colors
• Gary A. Ceres (gceres) is offering “Nobama” and “Don't blame me I voted for McCain” stickers.
• User johnk20 has a set of 25 “Pray for Obama” buttons going for $10. The item description says, “I did not vote for this man, but I am a believing Christian, and I believe that ALL people of faith, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, need to band together across race, religion, and culture, and PRAY for this man. It is the only thing that will save his presidency.”
Lakeside's Wendy Love (love8144) has a more Zen approach. A die-hard Hillary Clinton supporter, Love has hit the online auction site with her more than 500 different political buttons (at least half of which are Obama-related). “He's just the speaker of the century,” she says.
After purchasing a button press and laminator online, Love reached out to artists from as far away as Australia and India whom she found on Elance.com, a network of freelance professionals, and started on her button venture. With orders coming in each day, what started off as a small side business has turned into a full-time job with poignant buttons, like the one adorned with the title “Great Leaders,” showing Obama alongside George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, as well as humorous ones like the button depicting him as “The Obamanator, ‘the Republican Terminator'” and another that reads “Nudists for Obama.”
The first celluloid political buttons appeared in 1896 with the campaigns of William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan and since have become a staple. Some of the rarest have sold at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.
Love's pin-backs currently go for between $8 and $100. Her dream is that her work will live on.
“I use only Kodak paper, and I'm hoping that in some time in history my pins will leave a little mark.”
Love teamed up with artists such as Peter Murphy and Dwight Kirkland for several limited-edition runs and, after the swearing-in, will start work on a book compilation. Although she has some inauguration designs planned, she doesn't expect her job to end on Jan. 20.
“I promised myself that just because a Democrat got elected, doesn't mean I'm going to be any less vigilant now,” she says. “However, I don't think that there could possibly be any more negative pins than there were for George Bush.”
ImagineGate Toys owner and managing director Rudy Gonzales is still selling record numbers of his Obama action figure, bobble head—described as “six inches of plastic freedom”—and Captain Obama doll, which is, according to his website, “a superhero with extraordinary powers and unprecedented idealism dedicated to hope, freedom and change.” The Bay Park entrepreneur got the idea for this last one after the release by another company of the Obama sock monkey, which Gonzales describes as “awful and distasteful.”
The response was immediate, Gonzales says. “I have been running this business for five years now, and I have never seen anything like this.” During the campaign, he donated $1 for every doll sold. “We raised over $400 to support the [Obama] campaign. It may not be much, but we feel really good that we were able to have a small part in this historic event.”
Sales peaked post-election and have not stopped since. “After the election, sales really picked up dramatically. I think most people were just waiting for a winner,” he says.
Gonzales' favorite piece of Obamabilia?
“I have my own personal Obama memorabilia collection that I found mostly online,” he says, “but my favorite is my “I voted” sticker and ballot stub.”