History of the Button

Jul 1st 2019

History of the Button

Did you know that July 21st is the button's birthday? The celebration date is based on the day in 1896 when the final patent on the pin buttons was granted to the nation’s first and foremost button maker, Whitehead & Hoag of Newark, New Jersey created by G.B. Adams.

While buttons were developed originally as a political propaganda tool, custom buttons have since been utilized by advertisers, artists, musicians, businesses, breweries, to spread their messages into the world. For 123 years, people have been wearing and collecting buttons to express their thoughts on a variety of topics.

A Very Brief History of Buttons

The Button Zine, written by Christen Carter and Production Manager, Joel Carter, is an illustrated tour through the evolution of the pinback button. The zine illustrates how buttons give us a peek into people’s lives

With thousands of buttons at their disposal, it was quite a process to curate the buttons that would be included. After selecting visually-interesting designs representing each era of the 20th century, Joel said that they “concentrated on the buttons that had cultural significance, too.”

Overall, the zine illustrates how buttons give us a peek into people’s lives– they showcase ideas that people felt strongly about and the ways those ideas were shared with the world. “People make buttons to communicate,” Joel said. “As a physical artifact, they have a permanence and mark a moment in time.” Christen explained, “There’s an evolution to the different ways that people express ideas that’s also very telling [of the times].”

Buttons, Then and Now

While the basic anatomy of a button has remained the same since 1896, the style, shape, and printing method have evolved quite a bit over time. Buttons until the middle of the 1950's were coated with a cello plastic before the now-used mylar was invented and implemented. The method in which the original pinbacks were printed also shifted from primarily using a letterpress to relaying on the 4 color printing process of today.

Pictured below on the left are buttons from the 1890s-1900s. Included is a High Admiral Cigarette advertising button from 1896, a McKinley/Roosevelt campaign button from 1900, a Roosevelt rebus campaign button from 1904, and a Mr. Pickle advertising button from 1907. Featured on the right are buttons from the 1980s up to 2013. Included is a Swatch advertising button from the 1980s, a glow-in-the-dark Obama victory rally button from 2008, a Tony Fitzpatrick artist button from 2012, and a Three Floyd’s brewery button from 2013.

And Now We Celebrate!

The idea of celebrating the button's birthday began in 2011 when button champions Ted Hake and Christen Carter (Busy Beaver's owner) declared the patent date to be National Pinback Button Day. Since then, Busy Beaver has held photo contests, sent our mascot Bizzy on the streets of Chicago to hand out free pins, honored William McKinley—the first president to use buttons, and recalled the other great things that happened in the year of the button's patent...all to celebrate the impact button pins make everyday.

With this year's design, we remember the first use of the button: to start a conversation. We've redesigned this button from our museum, originally produced by Sherman Manufacturing, to encourage conversations. We'll have these buttons available in our shop if you stop by, or by request at!

The best way to learn more about the history of the pinback button is to plan a visit to our museum. Bring yourself, your friends & family, or a whole group—we'd love to have you!


From the button’s birthday to the history of political buttons, read more about button history

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