In the United States especially, there is a very active market in collecting presidential memorabilia; campaign button, posters, bumper stickers or anything related to a particular U.S. president. Among these avid collectors, Theodore Roosevelt is the most sought-after president, primarily because he was the first to generate a large amount of material that is still relatively accessible. President Lincoln would be more collectable but he didn’t use campaign buttons (they hadn’t been invented yet) and his posters are very rare, out of reach to every day collectors.
However, if we include casual collectors and the general public in the pool, President Kennedy is by far the most collected and revered of all the U.S. presidents. JFK’s 1960 election campaign generated a lot of material, it was the first modern style campaign that used mass-market advertising and television effectively. He was such a popular cult hero at the time that many people started collecting Kennedy related ephemera right away though the collecting really began in earnest after he was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
Anticipation of the 50 year anniversary of that watershed event, which passed yesterday, has led to a collecting frenzy over the past few years; prices for almost everything Kennedy related have been soaring. For instance Kennedy autographs, estimated to be worth about $3,000 (U.S.) in 2000, have been selling for an average of $12,000 recently. The last one he signed, in Dallas on the morning of his death, sold at an auction in 2009 for $38,837. More common items such as bumper stickers, posters, Kennedy coffee mugs are all selling briskly on line. Even here in Orillia, where we don’t find much presidential campaign ephemera, items such as old magazines, newspapers and recordings of his speeches all find willing buyers, many of them much too young to remember the Kennedy era.
We are endlessly fascinated with the Kennedy legend, his life and his death. Those of us who were alive on November 22, 1963 will never forget that day. We couldn’t believe that such a senseless, violent murder could happen in the United States. Now it’s hard to believe we actually thought that way.
It was Jacqueline Kennedy who first labeled his time as president as “Camelot”, after the Broadway play. It seemed picture perfect; the economy was booming, good-paying jobs were easily available, everything was new, clean and modern, America was the land of opportunity, Americans were the good guys who were going to make the world better. On that day in Dallas it all came crashing down. Two days later we watched Lee Harvey Oswald being murdered on live television. Dallas itself was painted of a city of hate, full of right-wing racists and criminals. Conspiracy theories immediately sprang up, fueled by the belief that everyone in power is corrupt.
The next few years were even more unsettling. Beatlemania, race riots, the Vietnam War, the counter culture and a string of assassinations made America and the world a very different place.
One reason it changed so quickly was because, like Camelot, it was all just a show in the first place. The cars of the time could serve as an analogy; they were big, beautiful and boldly designed but those fins covered a lot of shoddy engineering. Many of those cars were built to last only a few years and, as we soon learned, were unsafe at any speed.
The problems that rocked 60s and 70s were all there in Kennedy’s time, we just didn’t see them.
It was Kennedy who dramatically increased the American military presence in Vietnam (U.S. advisors had been there since the 1950s in non-combat roles). Martin Luther King led his peaceful March on Washington in August of 1963. That same month, the Beatles’ recording She Loves You was released in the UK, igniting Beatlemania there. In September it was released in Canada, where it was a hit, and in the U.S., where it was ignored and sold about a thousand copies.
It is likely that had he lived, Kennedy would not have been elected to a second term. His record wasn’t that good and his popularity was waning. He depended on his good relationship with the press to keep his private life out of the news but that wasn’t going to last forever. He may have survived stories of his numerous affairs with White House interns, but the one with Ellen Rometsch, a suspected East German spy working in a Washington escort service, would have ended his career for sure.
We know all that now but even so, nostalgia for the Kennedy years remains strong. He is still held in high esteem and the demand for anything associated with JFK is higher than ever. Some amazing auctions have been held recently.
In 2010, five X-rays of Kennedy’s pelvis sold for $28,125, in 2011 the ambulance purported to have taken his body from Air Force One to the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland sold for $120,000 (creepy). An auction last month featured Kennedy’s personally engraved rosary, a pair of his prescription eyeglasses, a 1963 Lincoln Continental used by the Kennedys on their way to Dallas, the 6th floor window from the Texas Book Depository and Lee Harvey Oswald’s wedding ring (double creepy).
There will be quite a few more auctions over the next few weeks. One of the most notable is today, November 23, in Dallas. The two Presidential Seal flags that hung behind his desk in the Oval Office, a rocking chair that he used in the office (he had chronic and acute back pain) as well as some items from his desk top are all up for sale.
You might think that once the 50th anniversary passes, interest in Kennedy memorabilia might fade, but I wouldn’t count on it. We all want to go back to Camelot, even if we know it never was real.