The Long Story Behind Presidential Campaign Buttons and Pins
There’s no question that enthusiasm runs high during presidential election seasons, and there are various ways that a candidate’s supporters make their loyalties known. From changing social media profiles into campaign billboards to slapping a bumper sticker on your car, there are lots of ways to let the world know whom you’re voting for. One of the oldest and most popular ways to express political pride is to wear it right on your body, in the form of a campaign button.
A selection of buttons commemorating Washington's presidency. (Mark Finkenstaedt)
Buttons and pins have been a part of election culture since the United States’ first presidential inauguration when metal pins bearing the phrase “Long live the president” and George Washington's initials were worn by his supporters. This particular phrase was chosen, of course, because newly independent Americans were accustomed to cheering “Long live the King!” Some habits really do die hard.
A ferrotype image of Abraham Lincoln sits within a brass frame and black text is listed on the top portion of the image.
When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, pins with a ferrotype (a photograph made of tin and dark enamel or lacquer) of his image were the first campaign buttons to use a picture of a presidential candidate. The pins featured Lincoln’s image on the front and a locking pin on the back.
But the first mass-produced and collectible buttons for presidential campaigns didn’t come around until 1896, when William McKinley ran against William Jennings Bryan, as Christen Carter, owner and president of the Busy Beaver Button Co and museum in Chicago, and Joel Carter who is director of operations for Busy Beaver.
McKinley and Bryan got lucky, because that year Whitehead and Hoag in Newark, N.J., patented pin-back celluloid buttons, meaning they had a metal back with a straight pin and, on the front, celluloid covering to protect the image. Due to newly inexpensive printing technology, and low costs for the materials needed for the Whitehead and Hoag’s buttons, candidates could afford to widely distribute them and use them as true campaigning tools.
Campaign buttons for that year were also notable for taking advantage of the fact that there had been a lunar eclipse that year as well. Playing on what was happening celestially, campaign pins for McKinley, would depict the Democrat’s photo crossing over and “eclipsing” a photo of his Republican rival. Bryan’s campaign did the same, and slogans included: “Total eclipse Nov. 6” and "Partial eclipse will be total in November.”
Many campaign pins have stayed in the public consciousness because they featured slogans that became their own cultural moments.
For example, the "I Like Ike" slogan that was coined to encourage Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower to run for president was very attractive to supporters because it was a roundabout way to express political leanings without committing to a certain party. At the time, Eisenhower was still serving as Army Chief of Staff and refused to commit to either the Republican or the Democratic party, meaning that citizens who liked Ike could make a statement about their political leanings without having to take a stand for a party. Of course, the rhyme helped make the slogan and pins special as well.
“I Like Ike” paraphernalia is a prime example of a shift in campaign buttons from a straightforward show of support for a particular candidate to pieces of art that speak to the overall political discourse. Some pins accomplished this by eschewing a candidate or party altogether, but focusing on a specific issue.
During the 1960s, buttons described by Joel Carter as “grassroots buttons” were made not by the presidential campaigns themselves, but rather by everyday citizens who wanted to support or bash another candidate. A button that exemplifies this type of sentiment came from the 1968 presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, whose critics created buttons with “McCarthy for Fuhrer” printed on them, Carter says.
Christen and Joel tell TIME that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s came through in campaign buttons as well. In 1972 when George McGovern challenged Richard (“Dick”) Nixon for the presidency, Nixon supporters wore tongue-in-cheek buttons that played on their candidate’s nickname.
Political buttons still pack a major punch in only a few inches of circular space today, and serve as a reflection of the political climate. The heated and divisive presidential campaigns for the 2016 presidential election have produced grassroots buttons that are every bit as incendiary as some candidates’ campaign rhetoric.
Showing support (or disdain) for presidential candidates through pins and buttons is a practice nearly as old as the office of the president itself, and over time evolved (or perhaps regressed) with the changing political landscape. The political accessories are hundreds of years old, but still remain wearable signs of the times.