Although the hobby of collecting political memorabilia is probably as old as politics, the political campaign button first became important in the presidential election of 1896. This contest, in which Republican William McKinley defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan, spawned a wide variety of colorful buttons, made by placing a thin layer of celluloid over a paper image on a metal disk with a small metal pin attached on the reverse side.
In 1896 hundreds of different buttons were issued for that year’s political campaigns, some by politicians and some by private companies that advertised their products on buttons boosting one candidate or another. “‘No presidential possibility without a campaign button,’ is what the boomers of the eastern candidates are crying,” said the Omaha Daily Bee on March 22, 1896.
As campaign buttons flooded onto the market, enthusiasts soon began rounding up samples of the most colorful. By the time of the November elections in 1896 political buttons were being avidly collected. The Bee asked in November: “Have you the button habit? If not you are lucky. It is the latest craze and is raging with great virulence just now. Nearly every day sees its ravages increase, and until after the election it will prevail.”
So pervasive had the button craze become in 1896, said the Bee, that “[l]ittle girls have started collecting clubs, and some of them wear the entire collection on their clothing, arranging the buttons in double rows around their hats and on their cloaks like trimming. Cigarette firms give away the buttons bearing their ‘ad’ in small type under the inscription, and dealers are besieged by the little ones for buttons. When the campaign of 1896 passes into history at least the buttons will long remain as reminders of its exciting days.”
Some of the most memorable campaign buttons from 1896 in the collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society feature Democratic candidate Bryan. In addition to photo portraits of Bryan, there are buttons proclaiming “No Cross of Gold,” referring to Bryan’s famed 1896 speech which won him the Democratic presidential nomination.
For more information on William Jennings Bryan and the presidential campaign of 1896, see the Fall/Winter 1996 issue of Nebraska History. Four issues of Nebraska History yearly are a benefit of membership in the NSHS; past issues are available at the NSHS Landmark Stores. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications