The Indiana State Medical Society was determined to make its 1896 meeting at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Fort Wayne something special. After all, the two-day event on May 28-29 was expecting one hundred delegates for the group’s 47th annual meeting.
A button! Why of course. Some forward-thinking person determined that a pin-back button announcing the event would do the trick. So while Missy Flick was decorating the church’s pulpit with palms and potted plants and carnations, another society member placed an order with Whitehead & Hoag in Newark, New Jersey, a company that had just started making buttons.
And despite the best efforts of Missy Flick and others, it was that one small button order that made history, becoming the earliest known dated button.
Let Ted Hake, founder of Hake’s Auction and one of the country’s leading pin-back button experts, explain.
“From this one little single button for a Medical Society in May, a month later the Republican Convention comes along in St. Louis. The Republicans nominate William McKinley. The following month in Chicago the Democrats nominate William Jennings Bryan.”
Politicians embrace the button as if it were a campaign contribution.
“Whitehead & Hoag produces over two thousand unique designs in a matter of months between June and November’s election,” Hake says. “On top of that, advertisers immediately hopped on the bandwagon.”
The button – as political statement, punch line, conversation piece and souvenir – had arrived.
It would become the longest lasting fad of the past century and a quarter.
“In the context of the day, there really wasn’t anything quite like it,’ says Hake, who has written a number of collector guides on buttons. “You have to put yourself back in 1896. Yes, maybe there was a newspaper or two that was capable of running a color picture on their front page, but in terms having a colorful graphic item, that was really not happening until the button came along.
“And then all of a sudden here it is. It’s small, it’s pretty, it’s warm to the touch – celluloid is a natural material – and it was free. There you go. That might be the magic word. Free.”
While wearing tokens and medals certainly had a long tradition, it was the button that took the world by storm. And for a very simple reason, beyond being free.
“Buttons are very demanding,” Hake says. “Every single button demands attention. That’s the nature of the beast. You literally stand behind whatever thought or graphic is being depicted on your button.”
“Ted and I just see the depth of culture and beauty of these things. Unfortunately buttons can be tossed off as something niche, or tchotchke, or something like that,” Carter says. “But really even the ones that aren’t worth money definitely tell a personal history. It’s part of the constellation of someone’s life.”
Carter readily admits she can wax poetic about the power of buttons, for good reason.
“The concept of a button, what it represents, it’s an idea that a person has that they want to share,” Carter says. “And one of the most beautiful things about a button is that you have to distill an idea into something that is visual, so that you can get what it’s saying in a few seconds. You have to catch people’s eyes pretty quickly.
“And it also has to distill a bigger idea. And then it has to be sharable. People have to want to wear it. So it’s got these things that make it, in the nature of its construction, just the mechanics of how they have to spread the word, a truly amazing thing.”
From political campaigns (presidential to student council) and commercial use (seed spreaders to beer), to grassroots causes (civil rights to anti-war) and entertainment (superheroes to punk rock bands), buttons have been telling our story for 125 years. And telling it well.
Even in the chaos of history and the clamor of today, Carter notes, “Buttons allow us to see the humanity in each other.”
So thank you Indiana State Medical Society for your foresight. You deserve a medal.
Or better yet, a button.