From Buttons to Pins: Campaign Tokens Evolve
by Geri Zabela Eddins
Lawn signs, bumper stickers, and buttons have advertised the political dreams of presidential candidates for years. But did you know that campaign buttons—those typically round, colorful pins with photographs and slogans—had their start as brass clothing buttons? Our earliest presidents did not actively campaign in the style we now associate with presidential campaigns but they and their supporters did wish to commemorate their inaugurations with souvenirs.
For the inauguration of George Washington, many different types of brass clothing buttons were created—some simply sported Washington’s initials, and others were engraved with “Long Live the President.” Washington himself preferred the button that included thirteen chain links encircling the button’s perimeter to represent the thirteen original states; these buttons were sewn into the jacket Washington wore during his inauguration.
These functioning commemorative buttons served as the precedent for later inauguration and campaign tokens. Brass and copper coins and medals became popular in the nineteenth century. During the campaign of 1824 Andrew Jackson became one of the first to mass produce campaign souvenirs as a means to market himself. He continued the tradition of producing brass coins and had them imprinted with his image as a military general. In the mid-nineteenth century the inventions of ferrotype and tintype enabled photographic likenesses of the candidates (rather than sculptural reliefs) to be mass produced in mini portraits surrounded by metal frames that supporters wore as lapel pins. And then later in 1896, for the campaign of William McKinley versus William Jennings Bryan, the first colorful campaign buttons were created by printing photographs and slogans on paper and then binding the paper to a metal disk that had a stick pin attached to its backside. Such campaign “buttons” have not lost their charm. Production of campaign buttons has only increased over the years, and today people wear them on jackets, purses, and backpacks to advertise their allegiance not only to presidential candidates, but to thousands of other political candidates and causes as well.
- Read more about the history of political memorabilia, including buttons, medals, pins, and postcards, and view pictures of these political tokens from the Ohio Historical Society at: Cyberbee.com/campaign.
- View pictures and descriptions of presidential campaign memorabilia from the Duke University Special Collections Library at: Scriptorium.lib.duke.edu.
- Read presidential campaign slogans at: PresidentsUSA.net/campaignslogans.
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Buttons, bumper stickers, and yard signs are all forms of basic advertising. In evaluating the effectiveness of any advertising, young people need to ask some very simple, pragmatic questions: What is the purpose of the advertising and does it succeed? Can it be easily read? Does it grab your attention? Does it include the candidate’s name? Does it help you to remember the candidate’s name?
- What buttons, bumper stickers, and yard signs have you seen? Think about what makes them memorable. Is it because you support the candidate or cause? Do the tokens contain catchy slogans? Do you remember them because they are designed well?
- What colors and designs do you think are the most effective? Is it better to include a candidate’s photograph or just his or her name?
- If you were running for president and could only produce one type of token (buttons, bumper stickers, or yard signs), which one would you choose? Why? Which token do you think provides the best advertising?
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Make your own campaign buttons! You can make buttons to advertise your devotion to a certain cause or candidate. You may choose to make buttons for your own school election. If your school is hosting a mock election for U.S. president, you can make buttons to promote your favorite candidate. Kits for making official-looking buttons are available at craft stores, but you can also make buttons using poster board, markers, and pins. Cut circles from the poster board, draw your design with pencil, and then color it in with markers or crayons. You can trace around the bottom of a cup to make perfect circles, or you can use a protractor. You can also design your button using a computer. After you finish your button, tape a safety pin to the back so you can wear the button on your shirt or backpack.
- Make a collage of campaign buttons that promote ideas, causes, and candidates who are important to you. You can download images of buttons or draw your own. Cut them out, and glue them in any manner you think is most visually appealing to a sheet of paper or poster board. You might even glue them on a funny hat just like political delegates do at their conventions!
Wright, Jordan M. Campaigning for President. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
“Political Memorabilia.” 19 August 2008.
“Presidential Campaign Memorabilia from the Duke University Special Collections Library.” 19 August 2008. http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/americavotes/.
©2020 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance