Pin-Back Democracy

The colorful pin-back buttons that we think of today appeared for the first time in the campaign of 1896. Coated with “celluloid,” a new plastic material, the pin-back button was a stylish departure from the metal clothing buttons that celebrated George Washington’s first inauguration, the metal tokens that lampooned Andrew Jackson’s attack on the Bank of the United States, and even the stickpins that acquainted voters with the likeness of Abraham Lincoln.

Celluloid pin-back buttons and button studs, 1896–1908

Celluloid pin-back buttons and button studs, 1896–1908

Gift of Robert N. Ferrell

The celluloid button—made with a patented process that sealed a paper disc under a shiny layer of clear plastic on a metal shell—presented colorful graphic possibilities. The celluloid button became a collectible in its own right on the way to commercial success as a wildly popular advertising medium.

Cover, pin-back button catalog, 1896

Gift of Ralph E. Becker Collection of Political Americana

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Pin-back button catalog, 1896

Gift of Ralph E. Becker Collection of Political Americana

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The Whitehead & Hoag Company of Newark, New Jersey, acquired the rights to produce celluloid pin-backs after purchasing a series of patents in the 1890s. The firm produced buttons under the trade name of Whitehead & Hoag until it was sold in 1953.

Whitehead & Hoag sold to consumers through “jobbers” throughout the United States, who solicited orders for custom-made ribbon badges from lodges, societies, conventions, parades, and political organizations. Each ribbon came packaged with a piece of card stock in a reusable envelope.

Whitehead & Hoag badge with envelope, 1896

Whitehead & Hoag badge with envelope, 1896

Gift of Frank Enten

Whitehead & Hoag published testimonials of its timely service, including praise from the badge committee for the inauguration of President Grover Cleveland, which ordered over $1,600 in badges like this one for the ceremony.

Cleveland inaugural badge, 1893

Cleveland inaugural badge, 1893

Bequest of Mrs. Julian James

The celluloid process held up well into the 20th century, but it was undercut by the relatively inexpensive process of metal lithography developed by rival firms such as the Green Duck Company, which created this sample card around 1956.

Sample card with pin-back buttons

Transfer from Library of Congress

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Campaign trade literature, 1956

Gift of Peter A. Bienstock

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The process of printing a metal lithograph button started with stamping dies. Each die is displayed below next to an example of its finished button, ready to wear.

Votes for women button and button die, 1911

Clark campaign button die, 1912

Clark campaign button, 1912

Clark campaign button, 1912

Dewey campaign button die, 1948

Dewey campaign button, 1948

Dewey campaign button die, 1948

Dewey campaign button, 1948

Dewey campaign button, 1948

Eisenhower campaign button and die, 1952

Well into the late 1950s, political parties, candidates, and campaign managers believed in the pin-back button and other novelties as vital and vibrant advertising media. Given away for free to be displayed as emblems of political activism and engagement, such novelties stimulated partisanship, sustained constituencies, and won elections.

Pamphlet, “To Help You Smash Through to GOP Victory”

Gift of Republican National Committee

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Pamphlet, “Attraction Impression Action”

Gift of Republican National Committee

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