The history of the campaign button is a tale of evolution.
It all began with buttons for our first president, George Washington — but not campaign buttons as we think of them today. At his first inauguration in 1789, brass clothing buttons and metal tokens in several designs were created to be worn on coats. By the 1840 election, tokens and ribbons of many different types were made to be worn on the lapel, notably for the campaign of William Henry Harrison. These tokens were generally drilled and worn on the shirt or around the neck by a ribbon, chain or string.
The invention of photography led to tintype photos being encased in metal frames, which could either be drilled and worn like the earlier tokens or have a pin attached to the back to wear. Tintypes were eventually replaced by cardboard photos.
In the campaign of 1896, buttons (as we think of them today) were issued for the campaign of William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan. These buttons included images or words printed on paper and placed on a metal disk with a pin attached to the back, and then covered with a thin sheet of celluloid. Although some buttons were created in black and white and sepia, the addition of full color to these lapel pins is what attracted attention. The Golden Age of Political Buttons began with this election and ran through 1916. Many collectors feel that the colors and designs of these pins have never been surpassed.
By 1916, litho buttons came into being: metal disks with a photo or words painted directly on the metal, which was bent back around the edges, with a pin inserted in the back. Celluloid covered buttons continue to be made, and litho buttons still exist, but the celluloid-style buttons dominate, though no longer covered with celluloid, but acetate or similar materials.