“It’s a period of intense political activism, and buttons and pins have always been a big part of that,” says one art historian
Activists today are pushing all the right buttons.
The humble pinback accessory seems to have gained newfound traction in recent months — most visibly with Hollywood elite affixing black-and-white “Time’s Up” pins, a nod to the growing national movement to combat gender discrimination, to their Golden Globes and Oscars formal wear.
More recently, celebs like Amal Clooney, Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus wore a stark, block-lettered “We Call B.S.” button made by the company Pincause, which partnered with the youth-led March for Our Lives in its fight against gun violence. Parkland, Fla., teen activist Emma Gonzalez, whose words during a viral speech inspired the pin’s message, sported one last month at the flagship Washington, D.C. march she helped organize.
But the button transcends partisan boundaries, Harry Rubenstein, a curator in the division of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told Moneyish. “I think campaign buttons, political buttons, have become sort of universal across the political spectrum,” he said. “My sense is that it’s happening on both sides,” art historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell added, noting that progressive protests often draw counter-protests. Conservative buttons emblazoned with messages like “Raised Right” and “Pro Life,” for example, are plentiful online.
“The button is part of American political life, and has been from the very beginning,” Rubenstein said. And during political movements, campaigns and times of heightened engagement, “the political button just seems to come back. It never really goes away, but you see it more often,” he said. The more people grow engaged in the political process, Rubenstein added, “the more of this material you see on the street.”
Christen Carter, owner of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Co., says the button manufacturing company she runs with her brother Joel has produced “a lot more cause buttons” over the past year and few months than it did previously. “People have a lot to say right now,” she pointed out. Carter, who entered the button biz in 1995, has worked with organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Everytown for Gun Safety and Women’s March Chicago.
“It’s a period of intense political activism, and buttons and pins have always been a big part of that,” Chrisman-Campbell said. “We have students marching against gun violence and marching for women’s causes and political causes … taking inspiration from 50 years ago, when pins were a big part of political discourse.”
Among the first political buttons were small metal-disc souvenirs that read “Long Live the President” created to mark George Washington’s inauguration, Rubenstein said. (Carter calls these “pre-buttons.”) But the classic pinback button we know today wasn’t mass produced until the 1890s, during the 25th POTUS William McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign. “It’s the campaign button that sort of leads to the protest button,” Rubenstein said.
Since then, buttons have cropped up bearing messages political and otherwise. Carter, who also runs a nonprofit Busy Beaver Button Museum with her brother, says she learned much of her American history through buttons: Bicyclists pushed for government-built roads with “Good Roads” buttons; Prohibition spawned buttons reading “We Want Beer” and “Safety First — Vote Dry”; and suffragettes donned “Votes for Women” buttons ahead of the 19th Amendment’s passage, for example.
During the 1930s, Rubenstein said, union organizing buttons became “ever-present and widely distributed.” The civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the ’60s saw wide use of buttons as well, he added, as well as the women’s and LGBT rights movements during the ’70s and ’80s. (The Vietnam era, Carter said, was “probably the most cause button-wearing time ever.”)
“It’s that one thing that people can easily demonstrate their engagement in a cause, a movement, a candidate … That’s why the political button, I think, is ever-enduring,” Rubenstein said. “It’s the one simple thing that you can participate (with) beyond simply voting or signing a petition … It’s a real statement of engagement in the process.”
Carter treasures the connections buttons can forge through the ease of wearing and sharing. “Somebody has them made, and they’re creating community with selling them or passing them out,” she said, arguing buttons are “way more intimate than something like a tweet.” “You’re standing behind, literally, what you’re saying,” she added. “You’re sharing it with anyone you come across in your community. Sometimes it starts conversations.”
And buttons don’t break the bank: Even dating back to their late-19th-century inception, they’ve been a cost-effective way to show support or opposition. “Per person, you’re spending 20, 25 cents per button,” Carter said. “It’s a pretty inexpensive way to spread a message.” (Pincause’s “We Call B.S.” buttons currently retail for $5.)
The understated button’s present appeal may also be linked to “a heightened sensitivity to political expression in the workplace and in social situations,” Chrisman-Campbell suggested, and some people’s diminished willingness to advertise their views as freely as they might on a hat or t-shirt. “It’s small; it’s subtle; it’s perhaps not as in-your-face as some other forms of sartorial protest,” she said. “It can also be removed easily.” And “in these turbulent times, pins allow you to express support for more than one cause at once,” she added. “Also, unlike a t-shirt or hat, you can wear them every day, with any type of clothing.”
So do buttons actually have an impact? “Well, who knows?” Rubenstein laughed. “I think it has meaning to the people who are doing it. That’s an impact in and of itself, right — that you make a decision to declare your stand, and you’re doing it in a public way.” Plus, “there is this idea in politics that if you get everybody in your neighborhood to wear a button, put a yard thing in, do some demonstration, that it creates this snowball effect.”
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