Political Campaign Buttons

February 08, 2019 Posted by: Kathleen Moenster, Assistant Curator

JEFF 5956, 5957, 5958, 5959

four campaign buttons

Campaign buttons can help solidify an iconic image that represents a historic election. The 1896 presidential race between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan was one of the most exciting presidential campaigns in American history. The Gateway Arch National Park is lucky to have four examples of campaign buttons from that election in its collections.

The history of campaign buttons is an interesting one. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to use these items strategically as a campaign tool in the 1860 presidential election. At that time, buttons were created by using a tintype or ferrotype photo process. However, it is known that campaign buttons have been part of campaign culture since George Washington’s time when people wore some kind of metal pins bearing such phrases as “Long Live the President.”

The first mass produced and collectible buttons for a presidential campaign started with the McKinley vs Bryan race in 1896.  Our park has two metal buttons from each candidate’s
campaign. They are called celluloid buttons because the front side of a metal disc is covered with paper and then protected by a layer of celluloid with images of the candidates. From the Republican Party is a pin with McKinley’s face with a red, white and blue bow cascading down the sides surrounding his face. The other button uses the American flag as a backdrop and features images of McKinley and his running mate, Garret Hobart. Representing the Democratic candidate is one button with a colorized portrait of William Jennings Bryan. The second button depicts the faces of both Bryan and his running mate, Arthur Sewall.

The presidential election of 1896 was one of the most dramatic in election history, with the central issue being the country’s money supply. An economic depression had begun in 1893 and public opinion was split between those who favored the gold standard (Republicans) and those who favored free silver (Democrats) to help alleviate the depression. Despite Bryan’s oratorical skills and devoted base, McKinley won the election decisively and became the first president to achieve a popular majority since 1872. For collectors who want a celluloid campaign button from each president and major party candidate, the 1896 McKinley/Bryan race is where it all starts.


Last updated: February 8, 2019

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