Tabbing through Congress

Vanik Tabs/tiles/non-collection/1/10-14-Vanik-Tabs-2006_052_004-1.xml Collection of the House of Representatives
About this object 
Charles Vanik wasn’t the only candidate to use bow tie tabs, but the black version was an exact match for his trademark neckwear.
If your signature look is a black bow tie, and if you are a candidate for Congress, do you want your campaign buttons to look like bow ties? Of course! At least, that’s what Charles Vanik, “the only man in the world whose entire wardrobe of neckties are all black and all bow-string ties,” wanted. Turning a round campaign button into a different shape was difficult. Something else, though, could turn all of Vanik’s supporters into bow-tie wearers. It was a tiny piece of die-cut metal that gave Vanik’s supporters a little taste of natty neckwear.

In the 1870s, commercial manufacturers used color-printed tin as advertisements that was stuck right on the product. The method was first used for plug tobacco, which had resisted branding since it was first sold in the 17th century. Plugs came as fist-sized lumps of dried tobacco. The irregular surface meant the boxes and bands used for cigars and the tins used for snuff didn’t work as packaging. Enter Tin Tag Tobacco and many other brands, with printed metal discs attached to the tobacco by a pair of pointed prongs. It was huge success in the tobacco world for decades after, with attendant trademark lawsuits.

The bucking donkey was a popular shape for Democratic candidates’ tabs./tiles/non-collection/1/10-14-Gonzalez-Tab-2009_142_000-2.xml
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The bucking donkey was a popular shape for Democratic candidates’ tabs.
Gerald Ford’s tab was small, but his punctuation packed quite a punch./tiles/non-collection/1/10-14-Ford-Tab-2007_147_005.xml
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Gerald Ford’s tab was small, but his punctuation packed quite a punch.
In the 1960s and 1970s, <a title="Charles Sandman" href="/People/Detail/21188?ret=True">Charles Sandman</a> of New Jersey handed out metal tabs that looked just like traditional campaign buttons./tiles/non-collection/1/10-15-Sandman-2008_065_002-1.xml
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives In the 1960s and 1970s, Charles Sandman of New Jersey handed out metal tabs that looked just like traditional campaign buttons.
This metal tab was from dairy farmer and Wisconsin Representative <a title="Lynn Stalbaum’s" href="/People/Detail/22105?ret=True">Lynn Stalbaum’s</a> unsuccessful re-election campaign in 1966./tiles/non-collection/1/10-15-Stalbaum-2015_036_000.xml
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives This metal tab was from dairy farmer and Wisconsin Representative Lynn Stalbaum’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 1966.
The political possibilities of metal tabs, punched from a large sheet of tin, were soon apparent to politicians. They could be stamped out in virtually any shape, from tie to donkey. A foldover tab clipped to the wearer’s lapel, which removed the step (and cost) of adding a pin to the back. By 1924, the widespread use of lithographic printing directly onto metal eliminated the need (and again, cost) of a protective celluloid cover. The color chipped, and the foldover tab broke after a few uses. Nonetheless, a cheap, disposable promotion was within the reach of most organizations. They were identifying badges for charity fundraising, comic book giveaways, and especially political buttons.

Gonzalez Sticker/tiles/non-collection/1/10-14-Gonzalez-Sticker-2007_183_001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Eventually, inexpensive stickers tolled the death knell of metal tabs as a quick and easy way to express support for a candidate.
Metal tabs were popular with congressional candidates in the middle of the 1900s. The House Collection contains dozens of examples from the 1940s through the 1970s. The most creative versions take advantage of intriguing shapes. Vanik’s bow ties connect the voter to the congressman’s trademark black suit and bow tie. Democrat Henry González of Texas used his party’s donkey for his tab. Others took a traditional campaign button and executed it in the cheaper medium of a metal tab. And a candidate like Gerald Ford of Michigan was so well known that he used just his nickname to remind voters who they were supporting.

After a long heyday, sacks of clinking metal tabs found themselves sidelined by long rolls of stickers that were easy to stick on clothes, cars, and windows. The metal tabs preserved in the House Collection demonstrate one way the development of new technologies intersected with the process of campaigning during the 20th century.

For more on election memorabilia, check out blog posts on ribbons, buttons, and matchbooks.

Sources: Robert Warren, Political Tabs… A Vanishing Breed, 1888-1988; Richard Friz, Collecting Political Memorabilia, (New York: House of Collectibles, 2004); Megan Springate, “Some Brief Notes on the Tobacco Tag,” Arch Notes N.S. 2(6).

Categories: Art & Artifacts, Elections