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When it comes to collecting, he's clearly right on the button

Al Feldstein began collecting political buttons in the 1960s as a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. He started with the ones protesting the Vietnam War that sold for 25 cents and 50 cents each outside the Student Union, and pinned them to an arrow quiver in his dormitory room.

"I liked history and this was the era of demonstrations," says Feldstein, of LaVale, in Allegany County. "I was attracted to the color, the graphics."

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He liked the buttons so much that he sought out new ones at various protests. On one of his first dates with the woman who is now his wife, he marched along briefly with gay-rights activists in order to get a button. More recently, he met pro-lifers outside the Supreme Court to add their button to his collection.

"Most of them I have picked up over the years as the event was going on," he says.

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Thanks to his efforts, Feldstein now has 4,500 buttons from various causes: civil rights to women's rights, ending apartheid in South Africa to ending U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

That may sound like a lot of buttons, but Feldstein says he knows people who have 40,000. He says he doesn't see a need to collect all "cause" buttons. "I went after buttons that represented the era, the history, the people, and the events."

In decades past, the buttons were frequently pinned on camera bag straps, canvas bags, hats, even suspenders. Shiny and colorful, they ranged from the size of a quarter to that of an orange, often shouting a short message with a big, bold font.

In the age of desktop publishing, just about anyone can create a button. But the ones Feldstein has collected are special to him because they are authentic, he says, "actually put out by a specific organization or group for a specific event."

Feldstein has honored his button collection with a display in his home. "I have my entire basement wall [covered] with display cases with the buttons."

But Feldstein, who works as a planner for the state, wanted to find a way to share his buttons with others.

Feldstein, who has written and self-published many books on the history of Allegany and Garrett counties and Cumberland, considered writing a book on his buttons, but decided to do a poster instead.

"I always wanted to do something different," he says.

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The 36-by-24-inch poster shows 375 buttons that Feldstein thought portrayed U.S. domestic and international causes from 1960 to 2003. "I picked out those buttons that were the most visually attractive and told the story," he says, adding that once the poster was finished, he realized he'd unintentionally left out a few events.

Beneath the picture of the buttons, he listed the dates and places of major movements and events to add historical context for such slogans as "I'm Not Fonda Jane," "Viva Che" and "March on Washington For Jobs & Freedom."

Feldstein is adamant that the poster is historical rather than ideological. "For some reason, it's usually the groups left of center that came out with the buttons," he says. "I was only able to find a handful of the opposite buttons."

Feldstein finished the poster in February and set up a Web site (www.buttonsofthe cause.com) to promote and sell it over the Internet. It costs $14, plus $4.95 shipping and handling, and also is available in Frostburg and Cumberland bookstores.

David Gillespie, director of the Frostburg State University Library, has a framed copy of the poster in the school's archives division. "It enhances our collection because we don't have some of the buttons he has in his poster," he says. Gillespie adds, "I think it reflects what I would call the people's movement."

Feldstein finds that people become interested in the poster after they've had a chance to study it. "A lot of people see that poster and at first they're not interested. Then they look closer and say, 'Oh my gosh, I remember that.'"

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Feldstein is still adding to his collection, but he's coming across fewer and fewer buttons at today's rallies and protests. "These buttons are becoming obsolete," he says. In their place, protesters are handing out stickers.

A hobbyist who goes from one project to the next, Feldstein has an eye on his collection of 1,500 campaign buttons that he hasn't done anything with yet.

"I may want to do another poster with the presidential buttons," Feldstein says.


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