McKinley first to use campaign pins to spread message

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

William McKinley had many firsts (and lasts) as president of the United States. Among them was that his 1896 presidential campaign was the first to make extensive use of campaign buttons.

The Whitehead & Hoag Company or the Bastian Company produced many of these buttons.

“The button is without question the best advertising medium,” said a button sample card from Whitehead & Hoag in the late 1890s.

McKinley, a Niles native, was inaugurated 120 years ago last month.

The history of the Whitehead & Hoag Company, as well as the history of the Bastian Bros. Company, are intertwined with that of the making of campaign pins. The Whitehead and Hoag Company of New Jersey acquired three major button patents prior to beginning button manufacturing in 1896. Whitehead and Hoag apparently purchased rights to a patent filed by Amanda M. Lougee of Boston in order to protect their other claims, even though the patent was for a cloth and metal clothing button.

When the button was patented, Whitehead and Hoag devoted its time to ribbon badges and making some with celluloid parts. Before their patents expired and the development of the small printing press, they became the largest manufacturer of buttons in the world.

The success of the button idea was astonishing, and buttons swept the country like an avalanche. Advertising and 1896 presidential campaign buttons saturated the nation. As there were no machines to place the pin and paper in back of the buttons, Whitehead & Hoag paid families living around the factory to do it.

Every night after school the children would walk over to the factory and pick up a box full of buttons, pins and back papers.

The company had always been non-partisan, accepting button orders not only from both major parties but from such minority groups as the Socialists, the Communists, Prohibitionists and others.

And so, McKinley’s campaign, along with that of his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, made extensive use of campaign pins. The pins usually included an image of the candidate, or the candidate and his running mate. Additionally, the pins included at times a visual way for the candidate’s stance on issues to come across. Many of the McKinley pins have McKinley’s image on a gold background, as he supported the gold standard.

Sometimes the pins were attached to ribbons, or other ornaments. A gold metal jugate pin containing sepia-toned portraits of McKinley and his 1900 Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt, is among them. The pin is attached to a double black cloth ribbon.

Another three-part mourning pin made of celluloid, metal and cloth exists with a picture of McKinley as the focal point. Arched above his picture are nine white stars with a navy-blue background. On either side are five red stripes on a white background. In white lettering beneath his portrait is the word “McKinley” on a navy-blue background.

Fanned out and attached to the top of the pin is black netting to indicate mourning. Attached to the bottom of the pin below the word “McKinley” is a flag ribbon consisting of eight visible white stars on blue background, seven vertical red stripes and six vertical white stripes. The bottom of the flag is cut in an upside down V shape. On the reverse side, the pin for attaching is visible. The black netting and flag are seen permanently attached to the pin, and no markings are visible.

This badge, still on its backing card, was produced by the Bastian Bros. Company of Rochester, New York, for the members of the McKinley Club in Canton.

Political campaigns of today would not be the same without these pins. They get the candidates’ message out using as few words as possible. They are colorful reminders of the candidate and what that candidate’s stand is on issues.

Scarmuzzi is curator of collections at the National McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles.



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