Printed Ribbon Badges

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Mercantile Library AssociationThe American Antiquarian Society collects printed materials of all kinds, including ephemera such as printed ribbon badges. The Society’s collection of printed ribbons featured in this illustrated inventory includes over 170 badges ranging in date from 1824 to 1900 and includes ribbons worn to welcome Lafayette during his 1825-26 visit to the United States, mourning badges sold during the funeral of John Quincy Adams, and celebratory ribbons worn during the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument. In the nineteenth century, ribbon badges were engraved, lithographed, or run through relief letterpress presses. Some printers, after seeing the profitability of printing on silk and other fabrics, soon specialized in the trade and hired skilled artists like Peter Maverick to create the visual images that characterize many of the earliest examples.

Printed ribbons were used for all kinds of special events and promotions throughout the nineteenth century. Many of the surviving ribbons were used during political campaigns. They were an easy, affordable way for candidates to rally their constituents. They were first used in the 1820s and 30s during the presidential campaigns of Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay. Badges allowed voters to show their backing of a politician or a party and helped spread specific messages long before the days of robo-calls and social media. For example, an 1844 decorative badge promoting Henry Clay touted him as the "mill boy," a reference to a nickname he was given based on his story of working industriously as a child, traveling to a local grain mill for animal feed as soon as he was old enough to ride a horse.

Thousands of ribbons were also created to promote social causes such as temperance and women’s suffrage, to mark local and regional celebrations, and to memorialize the passing of presidents and other notable figures. They were given out in schools for good attendance and behavior, used as awards at sporting events and fairs, and were worn by fraternal groups and firemen marching in parades. By 1875, printed ribbon badges had become nearly ubiquitous at most civic events across the county from New York to California.

Printed ribbon badges started to decline in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century due to the development of the celluloid button, first patented by Whitehead Hoag & Co. in 1896. These buttons were sturdier, cheaper to produce, and provided better quality images. Several examples of early buttons (many of which were initially attached to ribbons) are found within this collection.