By Grant Harper
You find them in the back of drawers or the bottom of boxes, in the attic or the back of the closet. They may be keepsakes of times goneby, souvenirs of cherished events or simply discards of the past. They come in different styles, sizes, colours and design.
I am referring to Canadian political pinback buttons, pins, and badges. Worn at conventions or during elections, for Prime Ministers or ordinary candidates, nationally or locally, they are not just souvenirs, but memorabilia, history and collectibles. Or in this case, what I collect and am writing about today.
Although collecting political items is very popular in the US, it is relatively rare in Canada. Still, there is a small group of dedicated Canadian political collectors out there. As well as buttons, there is a wide array of other Canadian political memorabilia to collect including pamphlets, blotters, Christmas cards, matchbooks, postcards, pottery (plates and cups mostly), posters, etc. Over the years I have sold off, traded or donated much of this “other” Canadian political ephemera.
As all collectors know, collections tend to grow and grow, and I could fill three basements over if I had kept or gone after everything.
At the same time, it can be something of a tough slog finding one particular area of Canadian election material including buttons.Compared to our American cousins, we produce substantially less promotional bric-a-brac in both in types and number of items. The reasons vary, of course. Canadian campaigns are shorter, our population is smaller and more spread out. Some also might say we are more reserved or, at least less flashy, in our politics.
In any event, the hobby is an interesting one. It brings out our history, personalties and important events. In fact, this is a primary appeal for me, since often one must research items to find out who the person pictured on a button is, what election it relates, or the meaning of slogans written.
Pinback buttons were first produced back in 1896 in the USA. They were a photograph or printed paper overlaid with a clear celluloid front and clipped into a metal frame in the shape of a button with a pin on the back. Invariably, these items are referred to interchangeably, and I will do the same – as pins, buttons, badges or pinbacks.
About half of all Canadian pinbacks produced before 1930 were manufactured in America and sold in Canada via agents. The most proliferate US manufacturer selling into Canada was Whitehead & Hoag of New Jersey. This odd blend of US manufacture and Canadian subjects frequently requires research to establish provenance. Most early buttons include a paper insert on the inside indicating the name and place of manufacture. When the item is manufactured in the US, many assume that an American politician is pictured. Given that buttons were very commonly used in the US, including for local races, it is frequently difficult, even for American collectors, to identify who is pictured or what election the pin is from.
The first two buttons (Figures 1 & 2) pictured are both made in the USA by Whitehead & Hoag. The red-bordered one is of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier likely from 1900 federal election. Pinbacks of Laurier are amongst the most commonly found Canadian pin produced before 1950.
The blue bordered pin is from the 1900 election and features Laurier’s opponent, former Prime Minister and then Conservative Leader, Sir Charles Tupper. Tupper is flanked by Sir Hugh John MacDonald, son of Canada’s first, PM, Sir John A. MacDonald. Hugh John ran as a kind of running mate-successor to the octogenarian Tupper in the 1900 election. In fact, Hugh John resigned as Premier of Manitoba just before the 1900 election to do so. However, he was defeated by Sir Clifford Sifton (Figure 3), the Immigration Minister in the riding of Brandon. The Sifton button is made by Woodburn & Sons of Montreal somewhere between 1900 and 1908.
The light or faded sepia pin (Figure 4) is made by the Toronto Advertising and Novelty Company and features the Hon. John Haggert. It is likely from the 1896 federal election. Haggert was the federal leader of the Ontario Conservatives and a Cabinet Minister under Tupper, and thus the party’s chief spokesman in Ontario for the 1896 election.
We jump ahead to the Great War. These pinbacks are of interest to both political and military collectors. The first pin (Figure 5) is our war-time Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. The pin is made in New York and I suspect (but not 100% sure) is part of a set of pins for WW1 allied leaders or contemporary with his . The Laurier button (Figure 6) is from his last election as Liberal Leader in 1917 which he lost to Borden’s Conservatives. This pin is made by Tansey of Montreal. The Grover-Liberal pinback (Figure 7) is a bit of a mystery. I have not been able to locate what riding or election he ran in. It may be there was no candidacy, as “Being Canada’s Youngest Soldier” disqualified him on grounds of age from running. Alternatively, “Grover” might be a nickname or first name, well known to those in the local riding, now obscured with the passing of time. Perhaps somebody out there knows who this is amongst Canada’s boy soldiers or what election it refers to. There is no makers mark for this pin.
Finally, the Major Streight button (Figure 8) is from the 1921 federal election. The Major was a candidate for the Liberals, even though you would not know it from this pinback. The Liberals were viewed at this time as something approaching the unpatriotic or at least the “anti-war” party, and Streight (and Grover) wished to counter this. As to Major Streight, he fought in both the South African and Great Wars, and held the Military Cross. The Major lost the 1921 election but ran again 14 years later in 1935 in the same riding for the Liberals and won, serving one term. The Streight pin is marked by the Sharkley Novelty Company of Toronto, who were likely an agent for an an American manufacturer.
The next group of pins are for Canada’s longest serving PM, MacKenzie King, and span different periods in his political career as a Liberal from his first election in 1909 to his retirement in 1948. The first pin (Figure 9) by the Advertising and Novelty Company of Toronto is from around the time of his by-election victory for MP in the riding of Waterloo in 1909.
The second pin (Figure 10) is from the 1920’s, during the years of battle with Conservative PM Arthur Meighan. The third button (Figure 11) is from around the time of King’s landslide victories in the elections of 1935 and 1940. The final pink pin, (Figure 12) was issued by the Liberals in honour of King’s 1948. None of the last three pieces have a maker’s label or paper. The next group includes a mix of federal and provincial pins, for what are popularly called, “third parties” in the political collecting genre. Most of these pins are historically tied to the Great Depression and resulting political tumult of the 1930s.
Tim Buck was the leader of the Canada’s Communist party challenging six times unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament. The pin pictured (Figure 13) pictured is made in Winnipeg, and likely from his third- place showing in the1935 election campaign for Winnipeg North. Maurice Duplessis was the prominent nationalist premier from Quebec who also rose to power in the 1930s with his Union Nationale party (a union of Conservatives and Nationalist Liberals), ruling (almost) continuously until his death in 1959. The pin (Figure 14) is a litho; that is ink printed on metal, American made, and related to Duplessis’s 1948 election victory.
The Alberta Social Credit pin (Figure 15) is from the party’s successful 1935 election that brought Premier William Aberhart and his so-called “funny money” party to power. The Alberta “Socreds” morphed into a conventional conservative party, eventually disappearing around the same time as the federal party in the early 1980’s. There is no makers mark on this pin.
The Howard button (Figure 16) is from the 1950s and marked only with a faint Union Label, but likely made George H. Hewitt & Co of Vancouver, a prolific manufacturer of BC items. This pinback is fairly typical of the plain single colour print buttons produced from the depression era 1930s through to the 1960s. Unfortunately, these “plain type” buttons are generally harder to find than the fancier turn of the century pins. I suspect their “plain-ness” consigned many such items to the dust bin long ago, confounding many collectors in their hunt for “that pin.”
As to Frank Howard, he was a long serving CCF MP and MLA from British Columbia who later joined the NDP upon its founding and merger with the CCF in 1961. I should mention that CCF pins are very sought after by collectors and hard to find, with less than 20 different types known.
The next group of buttons are of sports stars. These are very desirable, and sought after for both political and sports collectors alike.
The first pin (Figure 17) is of Lionel Connacher, Canada’s Athlete of the Half Century (1950) who played at various times professional football, baseball, hockey and lacrosse. He was elected in 1937 to the Ontario Legislature as a Liberal for the now defunct west-end riding of Toronto-Beacondale. The other sports pin (Figure 18) is of Dit Clapper a hockey Hall of Famer who played for the Boston Bruins from the late 1920s to mid 1940s. He ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in his home riding of Peterborough West in the 1949 federal election losing to the Conservative candidate.
The last group of buttons are from the 1940s and ‘50s.
The first button (Figure 19) is for Leslie Frost who was Premier of Ontario from during the 1950s through to the early 1960s. This pin is from his successful campaign for the Ontario Conservative leadership in 1949.
The Vote Newfoundland, Vote Smallwood pin (Figure 20), is for Joey Smallwood, Canada’s last father of Confederation bringing Newfoundland into Canada in 1949. This button is likely from the 1950s when his Liberal Party dominated Newfoundland politics.
The last two pins need a sharp eye and knowledge of history to recognize them, although the graphics have a definite ‘50s feel to them.
The pair of shoe prints (Figure 21) are from Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s 1958 successful re-election, “Follow John” campaign.
The maple leaf with wheel cross (Figure 22), is for the National Social Credit Party, Canada’s fourth federal party, from 1935 through to its extinction in the 1980 federal election. This pin is from the late 1950s to mid-1960s.
These are just a few examples of the type of items that are out there.
From the late 1960s onwards, buttons became more common than in previous times. Now, there are literally hundreds of different candidate and party buttons produced for each election, while before 1960 only a couple hundred pins were produced each year. This rarity is, of course, part of the interest to modern political collector of early Canadian pins.
Grant Harper has been collecting Canadian political memorabilia for over 40 years. He is currently working on a book about Canadian political items. If you have any questions or comments, or have an item you would like to share or learn more about, feel free to contact Grant at email@example.com.