A very brief history of buttons

First off lemme say which buttons we’re talking about.

What we have here is our beloved pin-back button AKA badge (UK), cello (celluloid) button, campaign button, pin. And they help us humans communicate.

Wearable insignias have been around a long, long time. Maybe even since the days of ancient Egypt

Wearable identifiers were worn in the Spanish Inquisition and have been commonly for military since 1800’s.

So it’s not a new concept!

The direct lineage of the buttons as we know it started here:


This is a clothing fastening button created to celebrate George Washington’s inauguration in 1789. Washington wore some on his jacket that day America got its first President and this got people so excited they wanted one, too. Metal smiths started making engraved and stamped metal buttons so people could own a little momento marking such a huge occasion. People occasionally find these with metal detectors buried in the ground!

There wasn’t much of a need for campaign buttons until 1828. That’s when the two party system began in the United States

Other presidential hopefuls helped move this idea along:

This Pierce medallion is from 1852 and is the first real photo, was meant to be worn.

This Abraham Lincoln pin is from 1864, it’s made of brass and has a ferrotype.

Check out the pin, it’s similar to the pins we use today!

In the 1888 election, celluloid was introduced to campaign items.

Here is one that has Benjamin Harrison made by the Baldwin and Gleason Co.

Then in 1896, the Newark, New Jersey, company, Whitehead and Hoag patented the celluloid button as we know it today.

Well, except we use plastic now instead of celluloid.

You can still find lotsa Patent!

Buttons with the WH backpaper early Whitehead and Hoag buttons that says buttons on it

And made the first political buttons for these guys:

McKinley Button 16 to 1 Bryan Sewall

Buttons were inexpensive - nearly anyone could collect them.

When buttons were invented, it was something really special to own a printed item especially with colorful graphics.

This is from 1897, but looks kinda 1970s:

There are 154 different Yellow Kid buttons.

Yellow Kid was a comic strip in the late 1890’s featuring a boy named Mickey Dugan who was lived in the slums. He’s the reason the term “yellow journalism” exists!

Want to see and learn more?

Explore buttons by category or decade and learn more history about various button manufacturers.