Vintage Pinback Market Remains Vibrant

Pinback buttons have been used in the United States since the first presidential inauguration in 1789, when Washington supporters produced a slogan button design to be sewn to a lapel or worn as a pendant.
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Considered the dean of the pinback button, Ted Hake, namesake of Hake’s Auctions, says at least 2 million buttons have crossed his palms since 1960. It was in his junior year of high school when he discovered the little metal disks with interesting sayings or promotional images. Since then, he has gone to manage the sale of some of the largest and most important collections of pinback buttons to ever come to market – and he says that market remains strong and vibrant. 

steve allen ratpack pin

Steve Allen’s rare and personally owned Rat Pack pin, in the shape of a rat, with red stone eyes, engraved “Steve Allen” on the front, 1” x 1/2” 

“After some 57 years and 2 million buttons, almost every day I still come upon buttons I’m seeing for the first time,” he said. “Now is an ideal time to get into the hobby of collecting pinback buttons in the two broad categories of both political and non-political buttons.”

A History of Pinback Buttons

The pinback button has been used in the United States since the first presidential inauguration in 1789, as George Washington supporters produced a slogan button which was designed to be sewn to the lapel of a coat or worn as a pendant. It wasn’t until modern times that the pinback as we know it came to be.

Benjamin S. Whitehead patented the first innovation to the design in 1893 by inserting a sheet of transparent film made of celluloid over a photograph mounted on a badge to protect the image from scratches and abrasion. The innovation opened the door to his company (eventually renamed Whitehead & Hoag) to produce any manner of political or promotional button imagination would allow.

“My first large collection, about 50,000 buttons, came in the mid-1970s from the estate of Joe Stone in Toledo, Ohio, who started his collection as a boy in 1921 when he picked up a button from the street while on an errand for his mother,” Hake recalls.

“His collection became the basis for my book ‘Price Guide to Collectible Pin-Back Buttons, 1896-1986: An Illustrated Price Guide.'" By far my largest collection, around a million pieces in all categories, came from the estate of Greenwich Village collector Marshall Levin. From the 1960s through 1999, Marshall was the consummate button collector of the modern era. He established relationships with most of the New York City area button manufacturers and attended every protest rally and industry trade show he possibly could.”

Political pinbacks

Following World War II, a handful of presidential campaign button collectors somehow found each other, joined forces and established the American Political Items Collectors (www.apic.us). The club had its first real growth spurt in the mid-1960s. There was very little documentation of the material at that point and what existed focused on the pre-button era items (mostly campaign tokens) prior to 1896.

Alton Parker Pinback from 1904

A rare 1904 pinback for presidential candidate Alton B. Parker depicts Uncle Sam admiring a portrait of Parker.

Hake was the first to begin to document presidential campaign items with his 1974 book on the subject “The Encyclopedia of Political Buttons 1896-1972.” He followed up in 1977 with “Political Buttons Book II 1920-1976” and “Political Buttons Book III 1789-1916.” All three books catalog some 15,000 buttons and other types of presidential campaign artifacts. Between these books and later books on particular types of items (ribbons, textiles, china, inaugural medals, etc.) collectors today have many resources for learning which items are common and which are scarce to rare. This is enhanced even more by internet sites such as eBay, Worthpoint and prices realized records for the past auctions of many different auction houses.

“The easy availability of historical pricing information, I feel, is the key factor contributing to the significant prices being paid for select and seldom offered presidential campaign items,” Hake said.

For politicals, there are two reasons this is a great time to collect. For the collector on a budget, between eBay and auction houses, there is much historic but “common” material steadily available at very collector-friendly prices. From 1896, the first year buttons were used, “common” McKinley or Bryan presidential campaign buttons can be bought in the $10-$25 range for beautiful, undamaged, pieces over 120 years old.

Non-political pinbacks

Non-political pinbacks, for the most part, have always been affordable, Hake says. Some of the most popular categories are Santa Claus, colorful early 19th century product advertising especially farm machinery, gun powder and cars, World’s Fairs (1901-1964), sports, in particular baseball, and entertainment focused buttons for comic characters, movie cowboys, famous movies and early television.

1896 Neward Baseball Club Pinback

This 1896 pinback features the Newark Colts Baseball Club. The Newark Colts were the only team in the Atlantic League that participated in all five seasons of the league's existence, from 1896-1900, making this pinback quite a rarity.

“If your budget can handle rarities, this is also a great time to collect as many of the collections formed in the early collecting era of the 1960s, which are now coming to market,” Hake said. “Many of these collections hold rarities of which few examples are known. These gems will briefly be available on the market and then re-enter collections where they will be held for years to come.”

Eric Bradley is the author of 12 books, including the critically-acclaimed “Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff,” “Harry Potter - The Unofficial Guide to the Collectibles of Our Favorite Wizard” and two “Picker’s Pocket Guides: SIGNS & TOYS.” He is an eight-time editor of the annual “Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide,” America’s No. 1 selling price guide. A former editor and an award-winning investigative journalist with a degree in economics, he has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, GQ, PARADE and Bottom Line/Personal, among others. He is Director of Public Relations at Heritage Auctions, HA.com, the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer, and lives near Dallas with his wife and three children.

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