Art In The Everyday

Art in the Everyday: Campaign Buttons

by Maxwell Tielman

Despite the fact that voting is more or less a private act, most Americans take pride (often very publicly) in whomever they support politically. Political memorabilia has been a mainstay in the United States since the inauguration of our first president, George Washington. Although no general election was held in Washington’s case, there was still a vivacious appetite for medals and mementos commemorating his historic presidency. Once citizens (rather than state legislatures) were permitted to vote for presidential candidates in the 1820s, the urgency with which Americans scooped up campaign objects only escalated. By wearing a medal, ribbon or pin, Americans could project their opinions and attitudes about the country and their personal choice for president.

The first presidential candidate to actually use wearable campaign mementos to his advantage was Abraham Lincoln, in his 1860 race against Stephen Douglas, John C. Breckinridge and John Bell. Like many campaign mementos at the time, the items produced by the Lincoln campaign were often small circular medals with a tintype photograph in the center.

The campaign button as we know it today has its origins at the end of the nineteenth century. Celluloid, the country’s first successful synthetic material, was invented in 1868 by brothers John and Isaiah Hyatt. The idea for using the material for campaign buttons, however, came from Amanda M. Lougee, a woman whose name, collector Richard Friz notes, “is to celluloid campaign buttons what the American flag is to Betsy Ross.” In 1896, Lougee was granted a patent for her so-called “Cellos,” buttons with a textile surface covered in a layer of clear celluloid. The first presidential election to make use of this new technology was the 1896 race between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. Because of the immense detail and intense color used in the Cellos from this campaign, it is often seen as the beginning of the “Golden Age” of campaign buttons.

In the 1920 Harding-Cox election, another new technology was introduced to campaign buttons: the lithography tin process, which allowed imagery to be applied directly to the metal surface of the button. This process, Richard Friz writes, “sounded the death knell to the celluloids.” Although many a political memorabilia collector laments the loss of the colorful cellos, the newer “lithos” are fascinating in their own right. Despite suffering a reduction in color, lithos often featured bold graphics in styles that were popular at the time.

Today, political memorabilia and campaign buttons are as important as ever. This presidential election in particular, it’s practically impossible to go anywhere without seeing a campaign button on somebody’s lapel or a bumper sticker emblazoned on the back of a car. Although political memorabilia experts date the end of the campaign button’s “Golden Age” to the 1920s, the fantastic designs and art involved in recent elections might be a sign that we are entering yet another.

To celebrate our democratic process and to remind you to please, please get out and VOTE, here are some fabulous button designs from our nation’s history. Special thanks to the New York Public Library for generously allowing us to photograph their button collection and to Jessica Pigza and Amy Azzarito for assisting in my research. Now, seriously, go vote! — Max

More images after the jump . . .

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  • I think I’m most touched by the Reagan/Bush 84 blue bow button…nice homespun quality but I’m fascinated by the woven fiber buttons for Harrison/Morton…would love to see how those were made back in the day!

  • Love this post! I’d also love your thoughts on how to display this kind of memorabilia…. I’ve been lucky enough to end up with political pins from both of my maternal great grandmothers, a sterling pearl harbor pin, and a rhinestone elephant from the ’60s. My maternal grandmother (age 86 in Boise Idaho) has sent me Obama pins for the last 2 elections.

  • Thank you Max for a wonderfully insightful and pertinent post. While I live and breathe design in my daily life, there is more to life than color schemes, eye-catching patterns, and alluring textiles. I love your additions to the D*S blog, and hope to hear much more from you in the future!

  • This is a great research piece! I would have never thought about buttons from a design perspective.

    I think the whole button thing is purely American, I don’t remember seeing campaign buttons here (in Europe) until very recently and, honestly, nobody really pays too much attention to them (they’re the cheap plastic kind anyway).

    It’s funny how the Dewey one resembles a Pepsi label.

  • Does anyone know who was represented by the Willkie pin? I have that pin, don’t remember where I got it but have had it for a long time.

  • I work at Busy Beaver Button Co. and we actually have an Abe Lincoln and a George Washington campaign pre-button in our button museum collection. Very cool to see how those early election mementos involved into the campaign buttons we use today.

  • Wow! I love that blinging gold record for Eisenhower! In Australia, we don’t have campaigns like America so its fascinating to see how the power of buttons, stickers and simple expressions of support might help sway others. The only campaign advertising we get is a simple placard hung on street posts and media adds. Boring!

  • Very cool stuff. Tim Gunn tweeted the other day about the first campaign t-shirt, which was for Dewey and read “Dew It for Dewey”

  • Awesome post!! I had my high school design students creating campaign buttons this last week, this would have been a great addition to the lesson! I’ll save it for next time. :)

  • The APIC (American Political Items Collectors) is a national organization dedicated to the preservation of Political Americana. For information, go to the APIC website. You will like it.

  • when we moved into our current house three years ago we found two large sandwich boards full of vintage election pins like these from the 50s to the 90s. we couldn’t just get rid of them and i never did figure out what to do with them. fast forward to a month ago when the 20 year old girl who grew up in our house came back to phoenix for her father’s funeral and i gladly gave them back to her. she was tearful and thought they were long gone. i was glad i procrastinated for once.