The Curious Case of a Button Collector
James Korman witnessed political history; now he collects it
Published in 2009 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine on June 22, 2009
When James Korman visits antique shops he searches for old cigar boxes under the countertop. He’s not after the boxes themselves but the buried treasure they may contain: specifically, old campaign and inaugural buttons from more than 200 years of American politics. If he finds one he likes, he’ll bring it home and place it neatly in a glass case with the hundreds of others he’s collected.
“The George Washington inaugural button is brass that you would sew on your clothing,” Korman says, describing the prize in his collection, which he acquired through more conventional means: an auction catalog. “[It’s] the size of a silver dollar and says ‘Long Live The President,’ with ‘GW’ in the middle.”
A prominent divorce lawyer and president of Bean, Kinney & Korman in Arlington, Korman began collecting political buttons in the early 1970s after he discovered a cigar box full of them, once belonging to his great-uncle, in his mother’s attic.
His collection includes every president from Lincoln to Obama—plus a handful of presidents before Lincoln. It also traces the evolution of political campaigns.
Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, was the first to run a massive campaign, along with not only the first real slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” but brass tokens and buttons featuring a log cabin and a barrel of whiskey—both representing his humble, rustic origins. In the 1860s, photographs of candidates were added. The popularity of lithography in the 1890s made printing on metal more feasible, bringing about the metal, pin-in-the-back campaign button we all recognize.
A history major in college, Korman is particularly fascinated with buttons representing losing candidates, whose names, he says, are often lost to history. He has an extensive collection of buttons, for example, from Judge Alton B. Parker’s failed presidential run against Teddy Roosevelt in 1904.
But his favorite isn’t even a button. It’s a small pewter pig, once attached to a key chain, that has a viewhole in the pig’s rear. Look through it and you see a portrait of William McKinley. “That means: ‘I’d vote for McKinley in a pig’s ass,'” says Korman with a chuckle. “Some people think recent campaigns have been vicious, but they don’t hold a candle to some of the stuff going on before.”
Korman not only collects history, he witnessed it at an early age. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he is the son of Milton D. Korman, a former judge and D.C. city attorney who argued Bolling v. Sharpe, a case under the umbrella of Brown v. Board of Education.
Korman, a fidgeting 9-year-old, was at the arguments. “I can remember sitting there and my mother trying to keep control of me, and my father arguing,” he says. “I was told of the importance of the case by my parents, but I doubt it really hit me until some years later.”
Korman also served as an usher at both Eisenhower’s second inaugural and Kennedy’s inaugural, and, in documentaries about the latter, a teenage Korman is often visible. “When the limo pulls out of the White House driveway,” he says, “there’s a guy standing there in a red coat and that’s me.”
Despite this connection, Kennedy’s inaugural button doesn’t excite Korman as much as the one reading: “Elect Senator John F. Kennedy for Vice President.” During the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy lobbied for the slot on the Adlai Stevenson ticket but lost to Estes Kefauver. That button, Korman says, rivals the Washington inaugural piece in terms of value. Both are worth several thousand dollars.
One treasure Korman is still searching for is a James Cox/Franklin Roosevelt button from their losing 1920 campaign. It, too, is worth thousands. “And the thing that kills you,” Korman says, sounding the lament of every collector, “is that you probably could have gone to the Democratic headquarters back then and gotten a handful for free.”