Ribbons that declared "The Winner." Ribbons for the "Peter J. Dooling Association." Ribbons mourning a dead Speaker of the House. Once, they were all the rage. Then, in the 1890s, a single innovation changed everything. Political ribbons went from reigning supreme as the most portable, wearable, and popular campaign decoration to being a deposed monarch of politicking, exiled to conventions and party dinners. What happened?
Ribbons were first used in American politics in the 1820s. The rise of textile mills and the printing industry made it practical for candidates to print their faces and their taglines on everything from kerchiefs to aprons. Ribbons, however, were cheap to make and easy to carry to campaign events. They quickly became the most popular way for citizens to proclaim their political allegiance.
By the 1870s, congressional candidates were using ribbons to spread their message and their faces. The rise of railroads brought cheap silk and printing technology to even the smallest cities. Politicans could now have reasonable likenesses printed on silk ribbons, which their supporters pinned to coat jackets and lapels. M.K. Gantz handed out ribbons with a simple image of himself, probably from a woodcut. Darius Hare went further, with a more sophisticated lithograph and the hopeful slogan, "The Winner." Why use the face? It was probably part of the rise of political sophistication and partly the American cult of individualism and personality.
Then, after generations of success, ribbons met their Waterloo. They were conquered by the celluloid button. In 1896, the Whitehead and Hoag Company patented the button as we know it―paper under celluloid, set in a metal holder with a fastening device. Buttons immediately took off in popularity. They allowed for sharper images, crisper printing, the use of photographs, and they were more durable than ribbons. For a while, ribbon-button combinations were used, but soon the ribbon was relegated to ceremonial occasions.
Sources: Herbert Ridgeway Collins, Threads of History (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979); Diane L. Fagan Affleck and Paul Hudon, Celebration and Remembrance: Commemorative Textiles in American, 1790-1990 (North Andover, MA: Museum of American Textile History, 1990); Roger A. Fischer and Edmund B. Sullivan, American Political Ribbons and Ribbon Badges, 1825-1981 (Lincoln, MA: Quarterman Publications, 1981).