Button Collecting

Button Collecting

Say It With Buttons: 125 Years of American Culture and History In The Pin-Back Button

The small but iconic pin-back button has captured the events and movements that outraged, amused, and inspired us throughout the decades. No wonder it is such a popular collector’s item.

Today, you can find all sorts of buttons advertising brand products, musical bands and sports teams, but it is the pinback buttons of a political nature that are the real collector’s prize.

Pinback buttons or badges first came into popularity at the turn of the 18th century. Used as a form of advertising and campaigning, the affordable and popular pin-back button contained slogans and powerful messages that over the centuries became a miniature sign of the times.

The first-ever button to make it into the mainstream is credited to Josiah Wedgewood, of Wedgewood pottery fame, in 1787 during the British anti-slavery movement. The badge showed the image of a black slave in chains and the slogan, "Am I not a man and a brother." This was a very powerful message designed to incite change. It was later rendered as a classic Wedgewood silhouette in the style of a cameo brooch.

Two years later in 1789 in America, political pundits of George Washington wore pinback buttons during the president’s inauguration as a show of support. These badges or buttons were of an earlier design that were attached to coat lapels by sewing them to the fabric. Others were worn around the neck in the style of a pendant.

Later in 1860, the handmade designs of these earlier badges were replaced with photographs of political figures, making them instantly recognizable.

It wasn’t until 1893 that the actual pin-back patent came into effect and was granted to a printer by trade by the name of Benjamin S. Whitehead:

My present invention has reference to improvements in badges for use as lapel pins or buttons, or other like uses, and has for its primary object to provide ... a novel means for connecting the ornamental shell or button to the bar or pin for securing the badge to the lapel of the coat.

Whitehead’s keen interest in photography, combined with his father’s affiliations with the Lincoln, Grant, and Garfield governments, led to a long and prosperous career in button manufacturing.

Whitehead later formed the printing firm the Whitehead & Hoag Company, together with his partner, Chester R. Hoag. W&H produced more than 5,000 advertising and printed materials, but they are most famous for their pinback buttons.

Whitehead’s button design featured a photograph mounted on a metal button and protected with a thin film of celluloid. The pin itself was a design borrowed from a Newark jewelry designer by the name of George B. Adams.

Whitehead & Hoag wasted no time in securing patents for their particular brand of button. By 1896, their button plant was producing more than one million buttons a day, making them the largest manufacturer of pinback buttons in the world.

Though political campaign buttons were their most popular seller, the first major order they received was for a cigarette company. They produced millions of these promotional buttons that were given away with the purchase of a packet of cigarettes. Candy and chewing-gum brands liked the give-away idea and later Whitehead & Hoag produced promotional pinback buttons for these companies as well.

The artwork on the badges was quite impressive and some of them were the works of famous American artists of the time, including Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and Harrison Fisher.

In the late 1890s Whitehead & Hoag became so popular that they expanded throughout the United States and across the globe to Argentina, Australia, and England.

The company continued to prosper well into the 20th century. In 1959, after the death of Phillip Hoag, the company was sold to their biggest competitor, Bastian Bros. The brand Whitehead & Hoag continued until 1965.

Today, if you want to know anything about pinback buttons, the person to ask is Ted Hake, who is credited with having the largest and most impressive collection of rare and wonderful badges.

In its 125-year history, it is incredible how many pinback buttons have survived the test of time. Hake attributes this to the protective layer of celluloid that Whitehead had the foresight to design, which so cleverly protects the artwork beneath.

The long history of pinback badges and the durability of celluloid has made button collecting a desirable hobby, and at the same time, helped to preserve more than a century’s worth of American history and culture.

Sadly, the artistic celluloid versions produced between 1896 and 1920 were replaced by the lithograph and tin buttons. Litho buttons were first manufactured for World War I campaigns and later for the fundraising efforts of the American Red Cross and Salvation Army.

During World War II, red, white, and blue became the dominating scheme for patriotic badges and overshadowed the artistic and multicolored renderings of the celluloid buttons. The litho button was no match for the early celluloid buttons.

In the 1960s, larger buttons flooded the market as a means to ensure the campaign slogan or advertising message could be easily read at a distant glance. By the 1970s rock bands were commissioning their own set of pinback buttons as a way for fans to show their appreciation and support.

Although political buttons dominate the collectors’ market, modern day buttons cover a wide range of causes and events, including artists, bands, breweries, political campaigns, social causes, and special occasions like weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. All of which showcase the habits and concerns of modern life.

To learn more about pin-back buttons, there are four books by Ted Hake worth checking out. These include:

  • Price Guide to Collectible Pin-Back Buttons 1896-1986 by Ted Hake and Russ King
  • Encyclopedia of Political Buttons United States 1896-1972 by Theodore L. Hake
  • Encyclopedia of Political Buttons United States 1920-1976 by Theodore L. Hake
  • Button Power by Christen Carter & Ted Hake (October 13, 2020)

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