COLUMBIA — Mark Farnen owns between 5,000 and 6,000 political campaign buttons. It's a collection that started roughly 50 years ago, when Farnen was 3 years old. Now, one has only to look at the plywood sheets and glass display cases to see Farnen's enthusiasm for his hobby, but as a kid his first button — the origin of his collection — was a bit of an afterthought. Ice cream was what he was after.
At the Soy Bean Parade in Mexico, Mo., Farnen's father bribed him with ice cream to sit on the back of a float and throw buttons, bubble gum and Kennedy-labeled cigars. As promised, at the end of the parade, Farnen received his ice cream, along with a bonus.
"My dad handed me a John Kennedy button and told me, ‘Hang on to this, it'll be worth something someday,'" Farnen said. "That was the only time I ever listened to my dad's advice, and he was right."
Almost 50 years later, he is still collecting campaign buttons and has recently added about 150 from the current presidential election. Farnen says this year has produced more political memorabilia than he has seen "in a long time," and the Obama and McCain campaigns seem to have revived an old spirit.
Farnen recalls the role of memorabilia in American society in the past, a time when many modern forms of communication didn't yet exist.
"Many of the ways that people communicated and made their political choices known was by attending rallies and wearing badges, ribbons and buttons," Farnen said.
Now, the political institution has evolved.
"The biggest change is the proliferation of media and how the candidates have been adapting to that," Farnen said. "We don't just use radio or newspapers anymore, not even just the Internet. This year, a candidate basically had his own prime time show on three different networks."
Through the use of different media, campaigns have drawn a lot of talk — a majority of which has been centered on the alleged negativity of each candidate's ads and speeches. But this is nothing new, according to Farnen. His collection has seen evidence of negative campaigning going back as far as 1940, long before any words were exchanged between John McCain and Barack Obama.
"Everybody thinks that the campaigns this year are nasty," Farnen said. "But negative campaigning has been going on for a while."
From his collection, he points out some anti-FDR buttons with slogans such as "No Third Termites," "Dr. Jekyll of Hyde Park" and "We want Edith, not Eleanor," which were all produced during the 1940 presidential race between Wendell Willkie and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Farnen also showed a button with "I.G.H.A.T." scrolled across the surface, meaning, "I'm Gonna Hate All Trumans."
The history of negative campaigning is only a fraction of Farnen's political history knowledge. On Oct. 29, he held a presentation at the Columbia Public Library for community members to view roughly 400 buttons from his collection. Farnen walked the audience through the decades, starting with 1896 and ending with the current election. He spoke about the evolution of political buttons, while also highlighting candidates such as Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon and Kennedy.
"The presentation was a lighthearted look at politics," said Marilyn McLeod, Columbia Public Library public service librarian. The showing was an opportunity to see something a little more bipartisan, something McLeod felt the community would appreciate.
As for his own political stance, Farnen claims strong partisanship. Calling himself "a yellow-dog, card-carrying Democrat," he has a devoted interest in politics.
"I would say it's in my blood," Farnen said. "The fact that I got my first political button by riding on a political float when I was 3 years old says something about my political involvements."
He currently works as a managing partner of a local communications firm, Strategists, LLC, but is involved locally as a political consultant and volunteer. Farnen has served on multiple campaigns and formerly worked for the Democratic National Committee.
Despite strong party ties, his collection is as diverse as it gets. He has buttons from both parties, buttons that are the size of a dime, and buttons that are the size of a dinner plate. As long as they're pins and as long as they're real, he'll take it.
As for other memorabilia, such as posters, cutouts or jewelry, Farnen mostly chooses to pass.
"There's a lot of interesting stuff out there and I own some of it," he said. "But really, I just try to collect the button."