A campaign button is used in the United States during an election as political advertising for (or against) a candidate or political party, or to proclaim the issues that are part of the political platform. Political buttons date as far back as President George Washington. They have taken many forms as the technology to create an image and mass production has allowed. In the late 18th and first half of the 19th century they were sewn-on clothing buttons, whereas the modern forms typically have pins on the back and are therefore also called pin-back buttons.
Campaign buttons bear some similarity to bumper stickers, which are also used for political and other promotional messages. As a novelty item, campaign buttons are part of the hobby of collecting.
The first photographic image on pins dates to 1860. Abraham Lincoln and his various opponents used the tintype or ferrotype photo process.
The first mass production of metal buttons dates to the 1896 William McKinley campaign for president with “celluloid” buttons with one side of a metal disk covered with paper (printed with the message) and protected by a layer of clear plastic.
Since 1916, buttons have also been produced by lithographing the image directly onto the metal disk. Thousands of buttons are produced and distributed to the public. A celluloid-type button is fastened to a garment using a pin on the back side of the button (in recently-produced buttons, the pin generally fits into a safety-pin-style catch). A lithographed button may fasten with a pinback or with a metal tab which folds over a lapel or pocket.
One of the most famous uses of campaign buttons occurred during the 1940 U.S. presidential election, when Wendell Willkie’s campaign produced millions of lithographed slogan buttons in rapid response to news items about President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Recently, increasing advertising expenses and legal limits on expenditures have led many U.S. campaigns to abandon buttons in favor of disposable lapel stickers, which are much less expensive.
Another recent trend is the use of graphical campaign buttons, or “web buttons”, that Internet users can place on their personal websites. Graphical campaign buttons are useful because they can be widely distributed for little cost.
However, wider availability of machines for producing celluloid-type buttons (as well as inkjet and laser printers and design software) now permit even small campaigns to produce or acquire buttons relatively inexpensively, even in small quantities.