Smithsonian curators gather swag from political campaigns

A glimpse into U.S. political history

Claire Jerry isn't your typical political junkie. She's a professional one, on the hunt for political history to document the 2020 campaign.

"That's the question curators are always asking themselves — trying to think 50 or 100 years down the road," Jerry, who works for the Smithsonian Institution, told CBS News.

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The Smithsonian collection of campaign buttons. CBS News

Like primary season, her quest begins in Iowa.

"Every four years we get in the field — go to primaries, conventions, pick up things voters are doing," Jerry said. 

From t-shirts to talking points, Jerry has an eye for what stands out and what to bring back. While this is Jerry's first presidential campaign, the Smithsonian collection dates back to George Washington's presidency.

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A campaign button from President Dwight Eisenhower's campaign. CBS News

Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of political history, said President William Henry Harrison popularized campaign swag back in 1840 with his log cabin cup.

"This is really the genesis of a lot of the kind of campaign material you see," Graddy said of the cup.

The memorabilia includes soap, makeup compacts, cologne and, of course, buttons. There's a room with cabinets filled with buttons and their predecessor, campaign ribbons. It's a collection of about 130,000 items — but only a fraction are on display for the public to see. 

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An assortment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt buttons from the Smithsonian collection. CBS News

Here, many of the candidates who failed to get the nominations live on.

"We think of the campaigns as being very disposable," Graddy said. "Once a campaign drops, do people even remember them? Well, we do!"