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 . . .