What do disability history and Pinterest have in common?

By Rebecca Schmitt, graduate student in Public History, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Collage of four ADA buttons described in this blog post

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's collections and write blog posts sharing their research. 

Screenshot of the museum's Pinterest boards, including a "Today in history" board, "Remembering Abe," "Think Pink."

On the surface, disability history and social networks such as Pinterest do not appear to have anything in common. One is a story of a fight for the passage of laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability. The other is a popular social media site that allows people to exchange information and ideas on everything from recipes, to crafts, and more.

White pin. Red text in bold typeface: "CIVIL RIGHTS." Blue text in bold typeface: "SIGN THE BILL!"

However, the answer to the question is quite simple: Pins! Disability rights activists used pins for clothing (also called buttons or pin-backs) to convey quick, simple messages aimed at raising awareness for disability issues as well as trying to convince people to support the passage of the ADA.

As a person who grew up during the digital age, I have to confess that I thought pins were a thing of the past. It was not until my friend Chelsea showed me her backpack covered in buttons that I realized how wrong I was. When I asked her what was so special about buttons, she told me that the pins served multiple functions. For Chelsea, they are a way to "add personal flair to an accessory." She told me that many of her pins were gifts from friends and that "it always feels good to carry something with you that is both portable and has sentimental value." On the other hand, Chelsea also uses the pins to raise awareness for a number of issues, including her union, body positivity, gender politics, and reproductive rights. In this way, she uses them "to show solidarity with other activists in the community, or peers who might be struggling with these issues."

Chelsea showed me that despite the proliferation of digital pins, physical pins still have the power to spread messages while also serving as a neat collectible. The power of physical pins made me wonder just how long these pins have inspired similar feelings of activism and collecting. I found out that political pins have been used for hundreds of years. Commemorative garment pins were used for every presidential election or administration. The museum even has a clothing button souvenir from George Washington's inauguration!

In the 1820s, political candidates began to use buttons and other material objects specifically for campaigning purposes. In 1893, a Boston woman named Amanda Lougee invented a button where a textile surface was covered by a thin sheet of transparent celluloid (a material considered the first semi-synthetic plastic) with a fastener on the back. The Whitehead and Hoag Company from New Jersey acquired the patent to her design in 1896. According to Roger Fischer, author of the book Tippecanoe and Trinkets Too: The Material Culture of American Presidential Campaigns, 1828-1984, "no other innovation in the history of material culture in American politics ever gained acceptance so rapidly or on such a massive scale." Lougee's design is basically the same as modern-day buttons; the only real difference is the current use of paper rather than textile.

Yellow pin with cartoon face in center. The zero in "504" covers the mouth of the face. Text: "National Committee We Are Watching."

In the early 20th century, pins became easier and cheaper to manufacture, which facilitated their use by politicians and activists alike. Disability activists certainly used this easy method of increasing awareness. One interesting pin in the museum's collections is one that says "National Committee, 504, We are Watching" with a caricature of Ronald Reagan. The number "504" refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a predecessor to the American with Disabilities Act. The presidential administration of Ronald Reagan often sought to weaken the regulations of Section 504 and successfully eliminated disability benefits for nearly half a million people. Thus, this pin represents the views of a person who disapproved of the actions of Reagan and promised to continue watching the administration.

Physical pins have a long history in American culture; digital pins are much newer, but the digital version certainly has a significant place in current activism and communication. On Pinterest, users post virtual pins to boards based on a theme, such as Activism, Recipes, History, Places to Go, or Disability Pride. Though many users' pins focus on crafting or fashion, there are no limits to the themes. The Smithsonian actually has many boards that showcase museum collections, such as Critters in the Collection and Fashion Backward.

The pins also contain links to their original source (i.e. a website). Physical pins work the same way. Through short, pithy sayings, the pins entice people to ask a wearer about what the button refers to. It's the same thing as when Twitter users post short messages with a hashtag. If Twitter had existed during the fight to pass ADA, many activists might have used tweets containing #ADA or #SignTheBill, not only to draw awareness to their message but also to connect to the wider community of activists.

Pin pin. In yellow bold text: "We've got the power! (ADA)!"

No matter what pins people wear on their clothes or on their social media pages, they ultimately are an expression of interests and causes, as well as membership in a wider community of people who share the same views. Anybody looking at my Pinterest page could immediately see that I am a graduate student from the Midwest/Upland South who loves pithy quotes, Christmas, and innovative home designs. Other people use Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to convey their interests, often through the use of quick, catchy slogans, hashtags, or graphics—all of which could have been used on clothing pins in earlier times.

Blue pin with white text

Today, buttons are still fairly cheap and proliferate at social activities, sporting events,and rallies. Of course, social media pins and tweets are even cheaper and quicker, but it seems that physical pins have quite a bit of staying power for not only spreading political messages but also as a neat collectible.

Rebecca Schmitt is a graduate student in the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is also an avid social media user and has a Pinterest board dedicated to all things history, featuring pins of objects from the Smithsonian collections.