One hundred sixteen years have passed since the time's ‘miracle' substance-celluloid-was first used in the manufacture of buttons. Thousands of button designs were produced at the 1896 outset and for the next 30 years, yet it is remarkable that so many early examples remain today. That they do is tribute to both the durability of the product and its attractiveness. Although most early buttons were simple product giveaways or handouts, many recipients found them delightful enough to keep-fortunately for the sake of button history, American history and today's collectors alike.
Buttons have achieved their first century of existence but actually are a ‘latter-day' use of celluloid. The mid-1890's began the flourishing button era, but the origin of celluloid in some form started as early as 1839 with the recognition of cellulose as a substance by a French chemist, Anselme Payeu. His discovery led to more research by other scientists and, eventually, to the vast plastics industries of today.
The perfection of celluloid, however, is generally attributed to John Wesley Hyatt, a prolific American inventor, in his search for an ivory substitute. His first known creation was an unsuccessful 1863 "collodion" billiard ball which unfortunately detonated in play due to its flammable composition. The composition was subsequently refined and in 1870 Hyatt obtained a patent for "celluloid." The substance was to become the nation's first commercially profitable synthetic material. Celluloid use grew rapidly. Although flammable, celluloid had many desirable qualities-warmth to the touch, pliability for easy molding, inexpensive cost-and hundreds of household and personal vanity items were conceived and successfully marketed.
Celluloid was first used in a presidential campaign in 1876, but sparingly. By the campaign of 1888, celluloid lapel studs picturing candidates Harrison, Cleveland and Fisk were introduced by Baldwin & Gleason Co., Ltd., an early New York City novelty firm. At the same time, early celluloid advertising pieces were being produced. The time was at hand for the birth of the button industry and boom years for all types of celluloid advertising.
Buttons, as made today, were first patented by the Whitehead & Hoag Company of Newark, N.J. in 1896 although related, preparatory patents were acquired as early as 1893 and 1895. (See supplemental article about this company.)
Following these patents, the remainder of 1896 produced an amazing variety and number of Whitehead & Hoag buttons. The flurry was stimulated both by the McKinley-Bryan presidential campaign and introductions of free buttons by manufacturers of candy, chewing gum and tobacco products.
Other major button producers quickly joined the marketplace and a 25-year era of button magnificence followed. Buttons produced from 1896 into the early 1920's attained a beauty that was to disappear almost as rapidly as it appeared. Lithographed tin buttons were introduced in huge quantities by the J.E. Lynch Company of Chicago for World War I Liberty Loan and War Savings Campaigns. Additional millions of "litho" buttons were used by the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army in their drives for funds. This was a much less expensive mass production process for buttons and reduced the production of celluloid buttons quite drastically. While litho buttons could feature several colors; the colors could not be blended to obtain the immense color range displayed on the best celluloid covered buttons. By the early 1920's production of beautiful multicolor buttons plummeted, although the button concept survived and continued to prosper.
Patriotic red-white-blue colors dominated the countless buttons produced during World War II and continued to dominate political buttons during the post-war years. Advertising buttons, meanwhile, tended to become larger and designed principally for easy legibility. The 1960's produced a revival of sorts with many colorful and nicely-designed ‘cause' buttons and the late 1970's brought a flood of colorful ‘rock group' buttons.
The number of advertiser sponsored giveaway buttons has diminished greatly over the years but buttons continue to flourish for a multitude of purposes. Modern technology makes beautifully designed full color buttons, in even small quantities like 100, available at very minimal cost. Among the major issues and purposes are artists, bands, breweries, political campaigns, social cause issues and even family event buttons for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. For 116 years, buttons have mirrored American life in every way and that is what makes them fascinating artifacts of our history.