Button brigade

AS LONG AS THERE HAVE BEEN POLITICIANS who have sought the office of U.S. President, there’s been a colorful trail of political buttons commemorating their campaigns. When George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, more than 40 varieties of pewter, brass and copper clothing buttons were available. By 1848-when the Whigs’ Zachary Taylor battled for office against the Democrats’ Lewis Cass-photographed images of candidates were carrying the likenesses of political candidates to the American public. . As grassroots campaigning took hold in U.S. political races, candidates flooded voters with posters, pamphlets, mugs, plates, snuff- boxes, cigars, crockery, walking sticks and razors-a sheer avalanche of political memorabilia- but the granddaddy of collectible political trinkets has always been the political button. . Around 1870, American John Wesley Hyatt perfected celluloid, a material that had been discovered in 1839 by French chemist Anselme Payeu. The refinement of celluloid led to the creation of the pin-back button. Amanda Lougee of Boston perfected the pin-back’s design in I893-crafting a thin, metal disk, enclosing a graphic under celluloid, holding it together with a metal ring, then inserting a pin into the back. Her patent was quickly snapped up by Whitehead and Hoag Co., an advertising-novelty printer in New Jersey. The company used its promotional know-how to make the low-cost button a staple of the 1896 presidential race between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. . The pin-back button’s popularity was immediate. Even in its initial year, more than i,ooo versions were produced, each aptly reflecting its particular candidate’s platform. For the next two decades, political buttons enjoyed a heyday, collectors say, due to the fabulous graphics made possible by celluloid and the resulting multitude of designs created for every candidate. Many of the buttons virtually enshrined candidates, their portraits framed by exquisitely detailed American flags and eagles in a manner that brought tears to the eyes of patriots everywhere. * In 1920, the celluloid button was replaced by a lithographic version that enabled images to be printed directly on the metal; by 1952, acetate became the material of choice. But besides an evolution of materials used to make them, political buttons haven’t changed much throughout American history. * The flag-waving red, white and blue has generally dominated the button scene over the past century, but a few innovators– such as Jimmy Carter and Barry Goldwater-bucked tradition and employed “wild” color schemes, such as green and white, or black and gold, in their campaigns. * Other standouts include Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign pin in the shape of his famous pince-nez spectacles. Portraits of him and running mate Charles W. Fairbanks were inserted into the wire-rimmed frames. A plethora of Rough Rider and teddy-bear themes also marked Roosevelt’s campaign button trail. * Celluloid buttons were phased out in the 1920s with the arrival of lithographic buttons, which were less expensive to make and easily mass-produced. The major drawback of the lithographic buttons was that the designs that could be printed on the button’s metal surface were much less elaborate than those that could be printed on paper. In fact, the In fact, the quality of lithographic-button images has never matched that of the celluloid-button era. Perhaps that explains the general lull in imaginative graphics seen in buttons produced between the late ig2os and the late ig6os. 9 Button designers became experimental again in the 1960s, probably because of the social consciousness of that era, says Steven Elkin, now a New York Citybased financial investor but an avid button collector from 1968 to 1982. “The whole counter-culture movement brought about a change in button graphics,” says Elkin, whose collection includes more than 12,000 campaign and political-cause buttons. “Before 1968, most buttons were pretty staid; after this, they became much more fun.” e Although modern-day candidates spend only a minuscule amount of their promotional dollars on buttons, new designs crop up with every campaign. A recent peek at the popular Web site www.politics.com revealed nearly 3o different designs for Democrats and more than 50 for Republican candidates, showing that buttons remain a favorite vehicle for visually promoting politicians in their electoral pursuits.

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