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The Pin-back Button Was A Place for Self Expression Before Social Media

The button occupies a fascinating, wide-reaching, and largely undocumented place in American popular history

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.

 

1
Electoral Politics

The celluloid-covered pin-back button introduced in 1896 was a direct descendant of metal clothing buttons made in 1789 to commemorate the presidential inauguration of George Washington. The next big advance in wearable communication devices came five decades later, with the wave of technology that accompanied the 1840 presidential contest between William Harrison and running mate John Tyler (“Tippecanoe and Tyler

Too”) versus Martin Van Buren and Richard Johnson. That contest saw an explosion of glass-covered brass badges (mostly picturing Harrison’s mythical log cabin birthplace) that were affixed to garments with a reverse bar pin and clasp. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln and his opponents Stephen A. Douglas, John Bell, and John C. Breckinridge had their photographic images reproduced “from life,” as was said, on hundreds of

thousands of small iron- or tin-backed badges. During the 1870s, cardboard photos gradually replaced emulsion on metal. Celluloid, the material that made the modern pin-back button possible, was developed in 1856 and initially used as a replacement

for ivory. The first wearable celluloid-covered lapel studs were used in the 1888 presidential campaign between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. Finally, on July 21, 1896, Whitehead & Hoag was granted the last in the series of patents that established the design of the pin-back button we know today. Ever since, buttons have been a perfect medium for the messages of campaigns and causes.

 

2
Activism/Cause

Grassroots causes have moved issues forward with the help of pin-back buttons for as long as they’ve existed. In 1896, buttons were produced to communicate a big issue of the time: what actually backs our dollar, gold or silver. The first animal rights buttons come just a couple years later and ecology buttons have been around since 1913. There were buttons that fought both for and against prohibition and women’s right to vote. The NAACP made anti-lynching buttons. Thousands of marchers were buttons  at the March on Washington in 1963. The 1960s and 70s were a prolific time for counter-culture protest buttons, starting with the Free Speech Movement in 1964 then support for gay rights, women’s rights, legalizing LSD, sexual freedom, and for ending the war in Vietnam. Since then, buttons have fought for finding a cure of AIDS, women’s rights, and for saving the planet. These cause buttons, especially, have an earnest and urgent message, letting people wear their ideals for all to see.

3
Music

The earliest band button was from 1901 when Henry Roney decided to rehabilitate wayward boys by teaching them hymns. They became The Roney’s Boys and would tour the country playing nursing homes, schools, jails, and one time played the White House. From the 1950s on, buttons brought musical heartthrobs like Elvis and Bo Diddly and later, The Supremes, The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits, Jimmy Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. A particularly notable moment in music buttons starts in 1976 when buttons became punk: on July 4th, 1976 The Ramones played a show at The Roundhouse in London, England. Joly MacFie, a hippy with a button maker, was there selling Ramones buttons at the show. Since then, buttons became a staple accessory for punk rockers.

4
Arts and Entertainment

Buttons have served the entertainment industry for more than a century, documenting the history of popular culture: cartoons, film, TV, music, performances, amusement rides, and literature appear on some of the most beloved examples. Buttons promoting vaudeville actors and silent movie stars created an intimacy with their fans. Buttons featuring every generation’s heroes and touchstones—icons such as the Yellow Kid of 1896 , Rin Tin Tin in the 1930s, and Keith Haring in the 1980s—define us and help us to recall large portions of our lives. Through them, people could gaze at their favorite stars any time.

5
Advertising

From the very beginning, the pin-back button was recognized as an effective method of advertising. In 1896, when visual images were not nearly as prevalent as they are today, owning printed matter was a true novelty. At the turn of the twentieth century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, there was never a shortage of companies seeking to advertise their wares. Since buttons are meant to be worn, their designs often reveal the trends of their era — beautiful and detailed designs showcased manure spreaders, handheld calculators, clothing, soap and more. Because the value of word-of-mouth advertising has always been key for brands, these tiny works of art were a way for companies to reach buyers. High Admiral Cigarettes, for example, would give buttons out free with purchase.

6
Ice Breakers

All buttons are conversation starters, but these novelty buttons have little other reason to exist. These facilitators of human interaction might be worn by the person sitting next to you who wants to tell you a joke or just strike up some small talk. Mostly, they’re humorous, showing what people found funny in their day. Some are public service announcements or points of pride, while others just try to stir interest. From the 1920s to

the 1950s, Johnson Smith and Co. produced all sorts of funny — if at times questionable — buttons with various sayings. Many are just text with a checkered or solid border; some tell, by rebus, a variation of “Confucius Say…” followed by a shocking political statement or an announcement that the wearer is looking for love. 

The 1960s brought a new style of humor—gift and head shops sold an array of countercultural messages. Mostly text, they often made light of sexuality and drugs. Since buttons were so widely worn during the 1960s and ’70s, there were also many self-referential designs, such as “Don’t you feel like a nut reading a button with no message?” The 1970s saw the heyday of streaking buttons—1974 was the year when a streaker crossed the stage at the Academy Awards and the Ray Stevens song “The Streak” was a number one hit. (The question remains as to where the buttons were worn.). Buttons bought in the 1980s and ’90s, in malls and novelty gift shops around the country,  allowed people to express snotty humor —  farting, nose picking, bitching, being old — without saying a word. In the 1999 movie Office Space, for example, waiters for a national food chain are required to wear a certain amount of “flair” in the form of joke buttons. It wasn’t the finest hour for buttons—they are portrayed as dehumanizing—but they still provided a significant cultural reference point.

Find more in Christen and Ted’s book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying it With Buttons, published in October by Princeton Architectural Press. All images courtesy Busy Beaver Button Museum.

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