Punch line. Political statement. Conversation piece. Souvenir. From the campaign trail to the rock tour, the pin-back button occupies a fascinating, wide-reaching, and largely undocumented place in American popular history. Social media is today’s most popular platform for self-expression, but the button preceded it as a way to tell others what was on your mind or as a tool to help spread an idea. No other form of wearable expression has yet to replace the humble button—and unlike social media, a button is something that you literally stand behind. Buttons aren’t just for political campaigns (from presidential races to student council contests) but also cover commercial products (overalls, seed spreaders, beer, personal computers), and for grassroots causes (environmental justice, civil rights, anti-war efforts). Buttons are uniquely representative of their time, celebrating everything from Rube Goldberg’s early cartoons to women’s suffrage and from FDR’s US Senate campaign to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
While the button was invented 125 years ago, wearable insignia have been around much longer than that—arguably since ancient Egypt. At the end of the nineteenth century, the cost of manufacturing pin-back buttons dropped dramatically, thanks to advances in commercial printing and metal stamping. Around the same time, it became possible to produce celluloid, used to protect the paper on which the design was printed, in thin, transparent sheets. Buttons immediately became an inexpensive and novel form of advertising. The New Jersey firm Whitehead & Hoag, established makers of decorative ribbons and ribbon badges, invented the first pin-back button in 1896. The earliest major use of pin-back buttons was in the world of politics , as a convenient way to declare support for a chosen candidate. The presidential campaigns of William McKinley and his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, quickly embraced the button, with over two thousand unique designs produced between the June and July nominating conventions and Election Day in November. Buttons also caught on fast with product advertisers. At that time, people had little exposure to printed imagery, and it was a novelty to own a printed item. That same year, the makers of the High Admiral (Yellow Kid) cigarette declared that pin-back buttons were “the greatest fad of all.” Which it may very well be—lasting over 125 years.