Pinpointing The Voice Of A Nation

In advance of the 2022 midterm elections, BuzzFeed News took a pointed look at the history of campaign pins, from the weird to the terrifying.

A woman looking into the distance over the camera wears a multitude of campaign pins fixed to her bathing suit that read "draft Eisenhower movement" and the name "Stassen"

As early as George Washington’s presidency, Americans have wanted not only to be vocal, but also visual about their support for different political movements. Emblazoned with faces, slogans, and poignant artwork, political buttons have been a steadfast touchpoint for our national discourse.

The popularity of pins as a campaign strategy rose to prominence in 1896 during the heated presidential race between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. This was the first instance of a mass-produced button in US politics, which kicked off a golden age of political buttons. From there, the production of political buttons boomed into the millions, becoming a staple for every candidate, issue, manifesto, movement, and inauguration. Sourced mainly from the Rothstein Political Button Collection at Harvard Kennedy School Collection, a survey of the history of campaign pins reveals that we are still fighting about the same things today.

In advance of the 2022 midterm elections, BuzzFeed News took a pointed look into the history of campaign pins, from the weird to the terrifying.


What’s New Is Old Again

Unfortunately, we’re still fighting the fights. From fair labor practices to abortion rights, we’ve found ourselves back where we started. These buttons address the rise of antisemitic sentiments, the legacy of Reagan’s war on drugs, and political leaders deciding what freedoms we have over our bodies. Sound familiar?

A button on the left reads "The right to abortion can be a woman's right to life" with the word "woman's" underlined; a button on the right shows an illustration hand gesturing toward a tree and smiling sun, encircled by the words "use alternative energy"
Two campaign buttons: one reads "stop Reagan's poor on the war," the other shows two frowning faces behind red crosshairs, under a warplane taking flight, and has the words: "stop the bombing! out now!"
A button on the left reads "shalom means peace" with the A's swapped to be stars of David; the button on the right says "there's blood on those grapes!" between quote marks, under a small illustrated splotch of blood
A button on the left shows two fetuses in a cramped womb, with one saying "crowded now? baby, just you wait" and a button on the right showing a broken nuclear missile, its cracks forming the outline of a peace dove, above the words "nuclear moratorium"
Button on the right has a read hexagonal stop sign reading "mental illness — stop the stigma" and the button on the right reading "tax reform — don't cut human services. mass human services coalition"
two buttons read "I am a grassroot" in all capital letters, and another reading "the rich get richer, the poor get Reagan"

Thinking Outside of the Circle

A campaign button isn’t just a political statement — it can also be a fashion statement. With many styles of buttons going in and out of style, the politically active citizen of the day had a few choices to make. The original and most enduring buttons are celluloid buttons, metal buttons with a design printed on paper and then reinforced with a clear plastic layer on top. In 1916, innovative button designers began producing buttons that printed the design directly onto metal. This allowed for uniquely shaped designs and simpler production, though ultimately the ubiquity of the familiar round button would never go out of style.

A button shows a psychedelic portrait of George Wallace with the word "Wallace", the button on the right shows a large black bird's profile, with a smaller white bird's profile inside its frame
A button in the shape of a donkey reads "vote democratic" and a button outlined with a heart and a key going through it reads the name "Hartke"
A button resembling a sunflower shows an elephant labeled "GOP" and the name Landon Knox, the button on the right shows a silhouetted figure facing a horizon filled with flames and the words "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came"
A button resembling a sheriff's badge reads "Deputy Buckley for Sheriff" beside a button with an simple orange smiling sun image encircled with the words "nuclear power? no thanks"
A button resembling a ying-yang symbol reads "youth international party, 1972, Miami beach" beside a smiley face button with the words "people above politics"
A button reads "Don Clausen" and a button with a donkey reads "McGovern–Shriver 72"

(P)In on the Joke

Humor has always been a great way to get a message across. Whether it was originally intended as a joke or not, without the context of the political moment, we can use humor as a coping mechanism to get through another day.

two buttons read "it's polite to wait until you're asked" in a minimalist, lowercase font, and "watch out, i vote" in a loud, psychedelic font with flowers in the O's
A button on the left reads "lick Dick in ’72" and the button on the right reads "be friendly" with images of bare footprints
A green button says "environment!" lowercase with an exclamation mark, a blue button reads "this is so sudden" in all capital letters
Buttons read "Wearing buttons is not enough" and "question authority"
Buttons read "no beer, no work" and show a glass filled with liquid labeled "H2O"

Dark Sentiments

Some buttons are a reminder of a dark not-too-distant past. The violent sentiments of xenophobia and pro–Vietnam War buttons reflect an ugly side of the nation. Keeping our past in view as we move forward can give us the insight we need to face similar situations the future holds.

Two buttons read "I am a right-wing extremist" with the word "extremist" in quotes, and "Smash Haiphong"
Two buttons read "join the Japanese sinking fund for the US Navy relief fun" and "put the squeeze on the Japanese, beat the promise"
Two buttons read "To hell with Hanoi" in white text over blue background, and "Tell it to Hanoi" in blue text over a white background
A button reads in red text over a white background: "contaminate Hanoi, drop hippies"

Got to the Point

Here’s to the winners! These buttons had what it took to endure the long road of the political campaign to victory. Is simpler better? Take notes!

Buttons read "I'm nuts about Jimmy" with an illustration of Jimmy Carter and a peanut in place of the "I" in his name, and an "Our President Franklin D Roosevelt" button
A button shows a close-up of someone's face, reading "Henry Jackson, the only moderate in 1972" and another with a close-up on someone's face reading "keep the faith, baby"
Buttons read read "Don't tarry, vote Harry" and "Elect Truman, no new man" on either side of a button showing Truman's face, reading "Harry S Truman for president"
A yellow smiley face with Joe Moakley's name under the mouth, and a green button with bold font reading "Sarge looms large."
Two buttons read "Think about George Bush" in blue and red capital letters, and "Rosalyn Carter for First Lady 1980" with an image of a woman's face
Images of state senator Sharon Pollard and US senator Ted Kennedy flank one of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale under the words "48th Inauguration, Jan. 20, 1977" on a green egg-shaped pin


Topics in this article