At the time of our first presidential election, only 6% of the population was allowed to vote. If you weren’t a white male property-owning Protestant citizen over 21, well, voting was out of the question. Women, immigrants, Native Americans, and non-white male citizens were left out of the electoral process—or discouraged through discriminatory regulations—for decades.
It’s taken two centuries of acts, amendments, marches, and heated debates to get to the (mostly) inclusive voting system we have today. And although the popular pinback button wasn’t patented until 1896, buttons in some form have been in use for just as long.
So now that the smoke of our nation’s sordid voting history has cleared, let’s take a button-powered look back at the progression of our voting rights.
1789 George Washington is elected first president of the United States—by a Congress made up of only white male Protestant property-owners over the age of 21.
“Long Live the President” button used to announce the first presidential inauguration.
1810 Religious prerequisites for voting are removed (hallelujah!).
1848 The Seneca Falls Convention takes place, helping spark the women’s suffrage movement.
“Votes for Women” button (circa 1910) used by the National Women’s Suffrage Association.
1856 Property ownership prerequisites removed.
1868 After Lincoln helped abolish slavery, the 14th Amendment is passed, granting former slaves citizenship.
“A. Lincoln” button, circa 1864.
1870 The 15th Amendment is passed: The right to vote cannot be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Former slaves and (male) African Americans are allowed to vote—though use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means of disclusionary regulations prevent most from doing so.
1876 The Supreme Court rules that Native Americans are not citizens as defined by the 14th Amendment and, thus, cannot vote.
1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act bars people of Chinese ancestry from becoming U.S. citizens, thus excluding them from voting.
“Grover Cleveland” button used in his 1884 presidential campaign. Cleveland campaigned against voting rights for African Americans and extended the Chinese Exclusion Act originally signed by President Arthur.
1896 Celluloid Pin-back button invented and used in the McKinley vs. Bryan campaign.
1900s Buttons become popular tools for campaigning to younger voters.
“First Voters” clubs spring up on college campuses helping secure Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 win.
1919 Native Americans given ability to earn citizenship—thus the right to vote—through military service.
1920 The 19th Amendment is passed extending the vote to women.
The “League of Women Voters” was founded in response to 20 million American women having the newfound right to vote.
1946 Filipinos and indigenous people from India become eligible for U.S. citizenship.
1952 The Walter-McCarran Act grants all people of Asian ancestry right to become citizens.
1961 The 23rd Amendment is passed, giving residents of Washington D.C. the right to vote in presidential elections.
“I Toured The White House” button.
1963 The March on Washington takes place, encouraging the Civil Rights Act (1964) and giving precedence to the Selma Voting Rights Movement.
“March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom” button.
1964 The 24th Amendment is passed, prohibiting poll taxes from federal elections (previously used to deter minority voters).
1965 Encouraged by the Selma Voting Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act is passed, forbidding discriminatory voting restrictions.
1971 The 26th amendment is passed, lowering the minimum voting age to 18.
“If I Were 21” button.
1975 An amendment to the Voting Rights Act requires voting materials be made available in multiple languages.
“¡HÁGALO! button (Spanish for “Do it!”).
1976 The satirical Nobody for President campaign emerges, highlighting voter apathy while offering real suggestions to counteract it—including making Election Day a federal holiday (this is still being proposed to this day).
“Nobody for President” button.
1993 The National Voter Registration Act (aka the “NVRA” or “Motor Voter Act”) is passed, making voter registration more accessible.
“Let’s All Vote” button.
2001 The National Commission on Federal Election Reform urges states to allow felons to regain voting rights after serving their time.
2008 Barack Obama is elected, becoming nation’s first black president.
“Obama Victory Rally” button.
2013 The Supreme Court strikes down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of racial discrimination get clearance from Congress before changing any voting laws. Several states take it as an opportunity to pass controversial voter ID laws.
“Fight Racism” button.
2016 You use your hard-fought right to vote THIS election season.
Find these buttons and more at the Busy Beaver Button Museum.
If the holiday season sparks joy in your heart, than this survival guide may not be for you. If you love your family, but don’t love the annual inquisition about your life and which direction it’s heading, then we suggest these wearable and passive responses to satisfy their curiosity on these varying topics.
Topic #1: Politics
With the election season soon approaching, don’t be surprised if your dinner conversation switches from favorite brussels sprout recipes into the potential presidential candidates. By showing off your political pins, you’ve already answered your family’s impending question about where you stand.
Topic #2: Your Love Life
So it maybe it’s been a while since you’ve brought any special someones around for the holidays. Your loved ones don’t quite understand that you like being single and you’re on a road to self-discovery at the moment. These buttons are a way to pronounce, “I’m perfectly content on my own, so please stop asking if I have a “Tinder” profile.”
Topic #3: Your Career
You decided to leave your job last month because you just didn’t find it fulfilling and worthwhile. You’re looking to expand your weekend passion of baking vegan cupcakes and make it your full time gig but your parents are concerned about your funds. You can assure them you have it all under control, but you also plan on taking the leftovers back to your apartment tonight.
Topic #4: Your Extra Curricular Activities
For when your Dad shoots you a look for that second helping of the spiked eggnog. “It’s the holidays, Dad!”
Topic #5: All the Topics
Just nod in agreement, the perfect answer to any question.
Is this the gift you wanted?
Will you call home more often?
Have you been eating your vitamins?
Every good party needs a mascot, and for this year’s celebration of the button’s 119th birthday, we chose a face with gravitas to spare– 25th President William McKinley! The stern elder statesman adorns this year’s button’s birthday design, ready to get down at the button celebration.
But why McKinley, you may be asking?
The button was patented back in July 1896, less than six months before the presidential election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. Both candidates took advantage of the new technology to help spread their message– not to mention their face– to voters, but with his win, McKinley became the very first president to use pin-back buttons.
In 1896, McKinley was sitting governor of Ohio. Bryan, a lawyer from Nebraska known as the “great commoner,” conducted a whistle-stop tour across the country, speaking to thousands throughout the campaign. The election came down to city versus country, with McKinley and his urban supporters ruling the day.
Button Museum co-curator Joel Carter mused that the McKinley/Bryan match-up was something of a reverse of the Kennedy/Nixon election– even judging by the buttons themselves, the more approachable-looking and famously well-spoken Bryan would probably have benefitted from the opportunity to debate the stuffy-looking McKinley on live television.
After McKinley’s election in 1896, Bryan ran again in 1900 against the sitting president. Inspired by the solar eclipse that took place in spring 1900, popular button designs featured alternating candidates as the victorious moon eclipsing the losing candidate’s sun. These designs are among some of the most collectible today– the Bryan “Total Eclipse” design pictured above sold for over $13,000 in 2000.
Prior to the 1896 election, pin-back button-like objects had been used in political campaigns for decades. The Washington inaugural button pictured above was meant to be sewn onto a coat, mimicking the buttons Washington himself wore during the ceremony. The Lincoln button is essentially a tiny framed photograph and includes a simple lock mechanism on the back and is strikingly similar to the pin-back design patented just a few decades later. Though these pre-buttons were relatively precious items at the time, as mass production and printing capabilities increased throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, pin-back buttons became more and more common, said Button Museum co-curator Christen Carter.
Today, of course, buttons are ubiquitous, and a must for any serious political campaign, and clearly campaigners of today are in good company with a rich history of political pin-backs from which to draw.