Every good party needs a mascot, and for this year’s celebration of the button’s 119th birthday, we chose a face with gravitas to spare– 25th President William McKinley! The stern elder statesman adorns this year’s button’s birthday design, ready to get down at the button celebration.
But why McKinley, you may be asking?
The button was patented back in July 1896, less than six months before the presidential election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. Both candidates took advantage of the new technology to help spread their message– not to mention their face– to voters, but with his win, McKinley became the very first president to use pin-back buttons.
In 1896, McKinley was sitting governor of Ohio. Bryan, a lawyer from Nebraska known as the “great commoner,” conducted a whistle-stop tour across the country, speaking to thousands throughout the campaign. The election came down to city versus country, with McKinley and his urban supporters ruling the day.
Button Museum co-curator Joel Carter mused that the McKinley/Bryan match-up was something of a reverse of the Kennedy/Nixon election– even judging by the buttons themselves, the more approachable-looking and famously well-spoken Bryan would probably have benefitted from the opportunity to debate the stuffy-looking McKinley on live television.
After McKinley’s election in 1896, Bryan ran again in 1900 against the sitting president. Inspired by the solar eclipse that took place in spring 1900, popular button designs featured alternating candidates as the victorious moon eclipsing the losing candidate’s sun. These designs are among some of the most collectible today– the Bryan “Total Eclipse” design pictured above sold for over $13,000 in 2000.
Prior to the 1896 election, pin-back button-like objects had been used in political campaigns for decades. The Washington inaugural button pictured above was meant to be sewn onto a coat, mimicking the buttons Washington himself wore during the ceremony. The Lincoln button is essentially a tiny framed photograph and includes a simple lock mechanism on the back and is strikingly similar to the pin-back design patented just a few decades later. Though these pre-buttons were relatively precious items at the time, as mass production and printing capabilities increased throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, pin-back buttons became more and more common, said Button Museum co-curator Christen Carter.
Today, of course, buttons are ubiquitous, and a must for any serious political campaign, and clearly campaigners of today are in good company with a rich history of political pin-backs from which to draw.