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Political Buttons Since 1896

by Tom Carrier (12/11/08).

Since the 1896 presidential campaign of William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, the political button has come to define support or derision for every subsequent presidential contest. Jim Warlick, owner of Political Americana in Washington, D.C. and WorthPoint Worthologist, explains the origins of the political button.

“Modern-day political buttons have changed very little since 1896, now more than 100 years ago,” said Warlick. “The early buttons were made using a clear acetate over paper and then sealed around the button.” With the addition of a pin with a clasp or a safety-type pin attached to the metal back, the buttons are called pin backs or, because of the clear acetate, are also called celluloids in the political button trade.

Another type of political button is the lithographed button, where an image or slogan is printed directly onto the metal button itself. These are fastened the same way as the pinback, or can also be attached with a metal tab that simply folds over a lapel or pocket.

Prior to 1896, political buttons were actual buttons that were sewn onto a vest, suit, or over coat. That is why this practice has led to the modern day identification of these campaign items as “buttons.” The first real buttons used to commemorate a candidate were produced for George Washington’s inauguration. There were effectively no campaign style buttons for George Washington as he was nominated and elected without opposition.

“The buttons have changed very little (since 1896), except for the value of the new buttons,” Warlick says. For example, an inaugural button produced for John F. Kennedy’s inaugural in 1960 shows that buttons can also be produced, not just for campaigns, but for special events that changes their value depending on the occasion itself. “Far fewer buttons were produced for inaugurals than for regular campaigns, so because of their limited number, are more valuable.

“There was also a unique button produced in 1952 which was a ‘flashing’ button, and when you turned it one way or another, a different image was visible. It was made by an old company in New York named Veri-Vu. These buttons are not made any longer [by this company] and the old ones are very valuable.”

These flasher buttons, though, have made something of a comeback. They were made available for the George W. Bush and John Kerry campaign in 2004, and have a higher than usual collector value.

As Warlick mentioned, special events can make a political button more valuable. Take a campaign button for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt from the 1900 campaign. “Shortly thereafter William McKinley was assassinated, so McKinley/Roosevelt buttons are very valuable these days,” he explained.

Collecting political buttons is a great way to learn the history of American democracy, understand the issues of the past, and allows anyone to be a part of the political process just by wearing one, Warlick said. As an American tradition dating back to the time of George Washington, you, too, can be a part of American history.

Watch Jim Warlick discussing the history of American political and campaign buttons by clicking here .
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