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Campaign Pins: Political Swag as Conversation Starters

Aug 13, 2015

Every summer, interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library. We often ask them to share their experiences in the blog. Jean Nudell takes a look back at the use of campaign pins in the political process.

It’s that time again. We’ve begun the long road to the 2016 presidential campaign. Like Christmas, it seems to come earlier and earlier every year, or cycle, as the case may be. In today’s hi-tech world, campaigns have taken on a new form. Social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle have changed the way candidates reach voters. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the use of campaign swag. Candidates produce all sorts of products to promote themselves and their messages, and to raise money.

The most prevalent of these products are campaign buttons or pins. Campaign buttons were the very first campaign swag, dating back to George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789. And in 1860, the likenesses of presidential candidates started being used on campaign buttons. For the first time, voters across the country could see what the candidates looked like. From there, campaign buttons continued to evolve, eventually growing to be the large circular buttons we know today. 

I have to say, though, after getting a chance to check out some of the campaign pins contributed to the TR Digital Library by the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, campaign pins of today are not nearly as fun or memorable. Campaign buttons today tend to be pretty generic and unremarkable.  They’re all roughly the same size, and tend to have similar designs. In Roosevelt’s day, that was not the case. There were three campaign pins that really stood out to me as I worked in the collection.

The “Hat’s in the Ring” button from 1912 is a simple design, with a hat in the middle with TR’s initials. It may seem simple, but it gets the point across without being overstated, which seems to fit the ideals of the time. The subtlety of the design would also lead people to ask the wearer about it, especially if they weren’t familiar with Roosevelt or his politics, which was an important part of getting votes in the days before sound bites and tweets.

The next pin is the Bull Moose lapel stud, worn by a founder of the Progressive Party in 1912. The moose on the pin is a nod to the party’s second name. Again, its design clearly shows the wearer’s beliefs, but is subtle enough that it could lead to questions and conversations about the party and platform.

This third pin, though, is by far my favorite. I’m not really sure what it is about it, but I think the design is so interesting. The “Pince-nez glasses campaign pin” is shaped like miniature pince-nez glasses, featuring Roosevelt in the left lens and Charles Fairbanks in the right, with the year 1904 across the bridge. There’s something about this pin that just sticks with me. It’s small and simple, but would definitely be a conversation-starter, and a way to get the names of the candidates out there.

While not flashy, I believe that all of these pins were a good way for Roosevelt to reach voters. Each is memorable in its own way, and each tells a story.  Maybe it doesn’t matter either way, but I think it’s too bad that candidates don’t use campaign pins like that anymore. In a sea of t-shirts, bumper stickers, and plain buttons, it might be nice to see some campaign swag that’s not only trying to be different (Rand Paul Beats Headphone skins come to mind), but is also telling a real story of the candidate and their platform.   

Jean Nudell is a recent graduate of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a Master's degree in Library and Information Science. She is a retail worker by day, and a job-hunting librarian by night. As a native of southwestern North Dakota, she is excited to be working on a project that's so closely connected to home, while working on honing her library skills. 

Posted by Jean Nudell on Aug 13, 2015 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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