Each election cycle, campaign buttons bloom on voters’ lapels like flowers in spring. These bright badges come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and boast catchy slogans such as “We Love Lindy.” Campaign buttons made their debut on the trail in the late 1890s with the advent of a new material called celluloid.
Celluloid was invented in 1868 by John and Isaiah Hyatt as a substitute for ivory used in billiard balls. The material was also used for the manufacture of piano keys, combs, and dolls. Celluloid first covered political buttons in 1894, and in 1896, Amanda Lougee patented its use for a textile-surfaced button coated in a thin layer of celluloid. The celluloid provided a clear protective layer for intricate designs beneath. Lougee sold her patent rights to the Whitehead & Hoag Co., which began producing campaign buttons through a process that hasn't changed in the century since. Images and slogans were printed on paper and placed on the face of a metal disk. A celluloid layer was placed on top and secured to the disk using a thin, metal ring that crimped under the curl of the disk. The end of the ring was typically bent to form a pin to attach the button to the bearer's garment.
In 1920, buttons with a lithograph printed on metal debuted on the campaign trail. A lithograph is an etched drawing transferred from one surface to another. Originally, the drawing was made on limestone and transferred to paper or, in the case of campaign buttons, tin. Lithograph buttons were simpler to produce, since the designs and colors could be directly applied to the metal surface of the button. Gasp! What did this mean for celluloid buttons? Not much, as it turned out. Manufacturers primarily produced less-interesting designs in few colors. Because the image or slogan was printed directly onto the metal, it was susceptible to chipping and scuffing.
Buttons took a third form in the early 20th century, as tabs. Originally made of paper, tabs were first produced in tin in 1924. Tabs were small, intended to be folded over the edge of a lapel or collar; as such, they typically bore the just candidate's name only. Occasionally, tabs were made in the shape of an object. But, whether tin, cellophane, or any other material, they shared the inestimable quality of demonstrating the wearer’s engagement with the politics of choosing a Member of the House of Representatives.
Sources: Richard Friz, Collecting Political Memorabilia. (New York: Random House, 2004).