Visitors to the Button Museum will know that two of the most prized items in our collection (and the ones we’re usually quickest to show off) aren’t actually buttons at all– they’re “pre-buttons,” button-like items created before the pinback as we know it was officially patented in 1896. Early pre-buttons were first sew-on, like the the crown jewels in our collection, a George Washington souvenir button created in celebration of his inauguration in 1789, and an early example of a removable button, an 1864 Abraham Lincoln ferrotype campaign button. Because manufacturing these objects was so labor intensive, early buttons were expensive and typically only used for political campaigns, and give us a peek into the development of buttons as wearable communicators.
Our Washington pre-button was made as an homage of the buttons the general himself wore on his jacket the day of his inauguration in 1789. As one of the first souvenirs celebrating the newly-formed United States, there were many versions created, including the monogram GW design in our collection. Since the idea of a democratically-elected leader was a new concept for the formerly-British colonists, the “Long live the president” text is reminiscent of the way kings were normally talked about.
As a sew-on button, the Washington souvenirs were designed to replace one of the regular buttons on the wearer’s jacket. Ours is missing most of the shank that originally appeared on the back, but a bit of the nub is still visible.
Fast forward 75 years to the 1864 presidential election, held in the midst of the Civil War. Our Abraham Lincoln campaign button appears as a sort of tiny picture frame. Inside the brass frame is an actual ferrotype photograph of Lincoln, along with the candidate’s name inscribed around the top.
As button nerds, one of the most interesting aspects of this buttons to us is the locking pin back. The mechanics of how the Lincoln button attaches to clothing are not far off from the design that Whitehead and Hoag would patent just 30 years later in 1897 when the button as we know it today first came to be.
Though not nearly as valuable as the Washington or Lincoln buttons, an interesting piece that connects elements of the two is this Grover Cleveland sew-on button. The Cleveland features a modern printed image covered with a protective layer of glass. This idea of printing the design and protective cover is much closer to the standard cello-style buttons the we create today with digital printing and mylar outer layers.
Yet even with the advances in mass-producing an image, the Cleveland button still retained the sew-on shank back, similar to the Washington button made 100 years before. Less practical than the removable Lincoln locking pin back, the Cleveland does still showcase more modern advances in printing.
With the advances in printing, and a back that let the wearer put on and take off their button at will, buttons moved beyond the realm of politics and into everyday life at the turn of the century. Looking back at these early presidential examples, the lineage of the pinback is a story of gradual developments and advances in technology that led to the buttons that we know and love today.