Discovering US History from my Grandfather’s Political Pins & Ribbons

Who was Underwood? Smith? Ella?

My paternal grandfather was a “Canadian, Scottish, Irish Catholic” newspaper man. Like many born in 1910, he never went to college. He went straight to work for the local Waterbury, Connecticut newspaper, where he was a Sunday editor. He became a political reporter and consultant to the New York Times, after having worked many years in the newspaper business. He also worked for the Norwich Bulletin, Putnam News, and the Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan. I heard many wild stories about his life, from the fact that he shimmied down a drain pipe from a school window to escape the nuns in the eight grade, to the yarns about him dining with George Bush’s family. My father had black and white photos of him in sharp business suits, smiling and looking like he was having a great time in numerous candid shots around the table with many politicians. The fact that he was a writer always intrigued me. I never had the opportunity to meet him, as he passed away from cancer before I was born.

A page from the news where my paternal Grandfather, Niel James Bulger, reported on the Democratic National Convention in the 1950s.

It’s hard for me to guess what it would have been like to know my grandfather and his work, but I imagine, like my father, he loved U.S. History. My father, went on to teach American History at the high school level before earning a doctorate of education and working 35 years as a public school administrator. I’m hoping to share this story with my father, and ask him for details about the collection.

As I look each button up online to create a timeline, I realize I remember very little from my own school History classes. Each individual campaign photo and slogan is a tiny mystery to uncover. Each fact unlocks stories that connect with the next button. It’s a great research project, and fun way to learn.

Roosevelt, T.R. 1900 | Hughes 1916 | McAdoo 1920 | Coolidge 1923 | Ella Grossa 1975

As a designer, I am also interested in the printing, the colors and fonts used. I notice there are bold 2-color buttons with type only, in all-caps. Some use block fonts in sans serif. Others use just the candidate’s last name in a serif font, with a band of red and blue below. Photo buttons combine both pictures and phrases. There are also a few campaign ribbons from the 1930’s; large bold ribbons like those now awarded for swim and track meets.

Political campaign button for 1860 presidential election depicts Abraham Lincoln. (Photo credit: Library of Congress

The very first political buttons were made for our 16th US Presidential election, Abraham Lincoln and Vice President, Hanibal Hamlin. They were 1 inch, tin type photos inside a metal frame that looked like a coin. The frame, or casing, had a hole in the top where a thread ran through to fasten the “button” to a jacket. A black and white bust portrait of Abraham Lincoln showed on one side, and the bust portrait of Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, appeared the other side.

Pin for Grant Monument Inaugural, 1897, NYC. Resting place of 18th US President, Ulysees S Grant and his wife, Julia. Button printed by Whitehead & Hoag, Co.

The oldest button in my Grandfather’s collection is from the 1897 Grant Monument Inauguration in New York City. “Grant’s Tomb” is the resting place of our 18th President, Ulysees S. Grant and his wife, Julia Grant. Men sat in rows for the event, dressed in suits with long jackets, black top hats and bowler hats. The top hats were very similar to attire worn by Abraham Lincoln as our 16th President in 1860. The women wore fur coats and elaborate, decorative hats. This pin was in three colors, with a photo of Grant, and one of his political slogans, “Let us have Peace”. This button was printed by the Whitehead & Hoag Company of Newark, New Jersey and patented July 21, 1896. The novelty printers, Whitehead & Hoag became the biggest manufacturer of buttons in the world after the 1896 Presidential Election.

President Grant was previously Commander of the northern states, Union Army, winning the American Civil War against the Confederacy of the south in 1865. Grant then was elected and served as a two-term President, from 1869–1877. His slogan for the second term was fittingly, “Grant us another term”, using his name to double as his request for votes.

William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, campaign button from 1900.

William McKinley was our 25th President, from 1897–1901. He was the last president to have served in the Civil War. He is known for declaring and winning The Spanish-American War of 1898, after which Spain turned over its colonies, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Phillipines. Cuba was promised independence as well, but remained under control of US Army at the time.

McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and succeeded by Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt Jr.(26th President), who had previously been Governor of NYC and recently returned a war hero from leading a voluntary cavalry of 125,000, aka the “Rough Riders”, in the Spanish-American war. Their button from 1900 was printed 4-colors; metallic gold, featuring both their photos in black and white, with and a patriotic, red, white and blue ribbon tied at the top and hanging down the length of the button, behind their images.


Woodrow Wilson buttons had many unique slogans related to his new policies: (1)“W” button: “Woodrow Wilson’s Wisdom Wins”, (2) Wilson, Preparedness, Peace with Honor Prosperity“, (3) “He Proved the pen mightier than the sword”, (4) America First, (5) Safety First, The Man of the 8 Hour Day

In 1912, our 27th President, William Howard Taft was defeated by Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had served as the president of Princeton University and as governor of New Jersey before he became the 28th President of the US. Wilson’s two terms as Democratic President from 1913–1921 were incredibly prolific. It was an exciting time, to say the least. Remarkable new things were accomplished in government, banking and foreign policy.

  • The “8 hour workday” was created for railroads with the “Adamson Act”. The blue and white button(above: 1st image, 2nd row) reads, “Safety First: The Man of the 8 Hour Day”. It depicts the front of a train, with Wilson’s face in the center.
  • 1914 Panama Canal opened allowing ships to pass freely between seas
  • The Jones Act of 1917 gave Puerto Ricans US Citizenship
  • The Treaty of Danish West Indies created the US Virgin Islands in 1916
  • ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corp) was created and Navy expanded
  • League of Nations was founded(Wilson was Awarded Nobel Peace Price in 1920)and Treaty of Versaille was signed(Button, pictured above, reads: “He Proved the pen mightier than the sword”)

It was also a chaotic and frightening period of US history. WWI was ongoing in Europe by 1914. The US entered WWI in 1917 after Germany was torpedoing submarines, killing Americans onboard. Wilson’s administration also brought the Jim Crow Laws of the South to the North and into Government buildings that had previously been integrated for fifty years. The laws were written by white men who hoped to “ease tensions” after two hundred years of slavery had ended by giving African Americans separate facilities. Unfortunately, they were blatantly racist rules that segregated anyone with dark skin from anyone with light skin. The very name, “Jim Crow” was taken from a white actor painted with a black face who was mimicking how a black person behaves for laughs. When African Americans migrated North after slavery ended, there were race riots. President Wilson did not believe in the Klu Klux Klan or lynching, but these horrible violations of civil rights towards African Americans were still going on in the South during his term. The first FLU epidemic killed 600,000 Americans, and millions more worldwide. Amongst all this chaos “at home”, Wilson’s administration helped write rules for world peace.

Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versaille, France Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In 1919, Wilson helped end WWI with the creation of the League of Nations and signing of the Treaty of Versaille at the Hall of Mirrors. The term, “Wilsonianisms” was coined, referring to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which he believed would create peace after World War I. These involved no secrets in international relations, democracy, capitalism, reduction of armaments, and freedom of the seas. Wilson was the first US President to ever travel to Europe. The “war to end all wars” was finally ending, and the concept of “world peace” was in the air.

  • William Gibbs McAdoo, Senator and Lawyer from California, served as Secretary of the Treasury in Wilson’s cabinet 1913–1918. He also married Wilson’s daughter and served as legal council for United Artists, where Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were silent movie stars. McAdoo ran for Presidential nominee in 1920 and lost to James Cox. He ran again in 1924 and lost the nomination to John W. Davis.
Presidential Nominee Ribbons: 1920; James COX, 1924; Carter Class & John W. Davis

There are several McAdoo buttons and ribbons in my Grandfather’s collection, as well as a ribbon with COX(James Cox) printed in navy on white silk, and a John W. Davis ribbon.

  • Carter Glass was a newspaper publisher and Democrat from Virginia, succeeded McAddo as Secretary of the Treasury, 1918–1920. Glass worked with Wilson to establish the Federal Reserve Act, establishing a central banking system in the United States.

President Wilson was re-elected for a second term in 1916, defeating Republican presidential nominee, Charles Hughes. There are several Hughes buttons in this collection.

Who was Underwood?

Oscar Wilder Underwood was a lawyer and politician from Alabama who ran for Presidential nomination in both 1912 when Wilson became President, and again in 1924, losing to John W. Davis, who then lost to Coolidge. Although he never became President, Underwood is the only politician known to have served as both the Democratic leader of Senate and the House. He was very much against the Klu Klux Klan and his work attempted to condemn the Klan. In this anti-Klan capacity, he was one of the only defenders of black Americans in the South at the time. He sponsored the Revenue Act of 1913, which is known as “The Underwood Tariff”. The Underwood Tariff wasn’t really a tariff but a tariff cut; it drastically lowered tariff rates and instead, imposed a federal income tax and a separate provision for a corporate tax. Underwood also opposed Prohibition and believed that State and local government should regulate alcohol.

Charles Evan Hughes was elected Governor of New York in 1906. He was a progressive and passed many reforms. From 1910–1916, Hughes served as Chief of Justice of the Supreme Court (appointed under President Taft) until he resigned to accept the Republican presidential nomination, where he then lost to Wilson in 1916.

In 1920, President Warren G. Harding became the 29th President of the United States. Hughes became the Secretary of State and served under both Harding(1920–1923) and our 30th President, Calvin Coolidge(1923–1929). Hughes helped negotiate the Washington Naval Treaty(Five-Power Treaty) which limited naval arms production of battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft carriers by the “Five- Powers”: US, Britain, France, Italy and Japan.

Calvin Coolidge, 30th US President(1923–1929)

Coolidge was known as “Genius of the average, middle class”. There is an embossed, all blue tin button (pictured, lower left) with raised gold letters. This is a unique style of campaign button that has not been seen this far. I also noticed that some of Coolidge’s celluloid, paper and tin buttons were stamped on the back, “Made by Erhman MFG, Co.”, Boston, Mass.

There is a “Keep Coolidge” button from his second term.(ie… Keep Cool…y’all)

Finally, there is a button depicting both President Coolidge and Vice President, Charles G. Dawes.

Charles Gates Dawes was the Vice President during Coolidge’s 2nd term, from 1925–1929. He was the son of a Civil War General, a banker, and unique to Vice Presidents, he was a self-taught pianist and composer who is credited with writing a “№1 Pop hit”. His 1912 “Melody in A Major” became a well-known piano and violin song. It was arranged for orchestra in 1921 and Carl Sigman added lyrics to the song in 1951, calling it “It’s All in the Game”. It was recorded by Tommy Edwards and became a hit on the American Billboard record chart for six weeks in the Fall of 1958. The song became a standard and was recorded by the Four Tops, Van Morrison, Nat “King” Cole, Elton John, the Osmonds, Barry Manilow and Keith Jarrett. Dawes and Sonny Bono are the only politicians with number one music hits.

Art Garfunkel’s cover of the 1958 hit “It’s All in the Game”, original tune by Vice President, Charles Dawes

Dawes had a long history in office, previously served as Controller of Currency with McKinley/Roosevelt, Director of the Budget and became Ambassador to the UK during Herbert Hoover’s Presidency (1929–1933).

Who was Smith?

Here’s the “You can call me Al, moment…” Herbert Hoover became the 31st President of the United States when he beat the Democratic nominee, Al Smith, a four-term Governor of New York who lived near the Brooklyn Bridge. Smith opposed Prohibition because he did not believe it could be enforced. After Smith lost, he went on to become President of Empire State, Inc. and helped build the Empire State Building during the Great Depression. His grandkids cut the ribbon during the opening of the new building.

Hoover for President and Smith for President, Campaign Buttons. Hoover Pins, by King’s Neverloos.

After I wrote this, I got a chance to ask my father about my grandfather. He shared:

“The button collection was given to my Dad from a long time friend who worked for the Health Dept. in Waterbury. He inspected restaurants and wrote the most interesting reports (i.e., “Mrs. Smith’s Apple pies are to die for and the kitchen was spotless.”) Your grandfather was always on the look out for interesting writers and people.

He was also a special correspondent for the New York Times, covering Connecticut politics. He covered local, state, and national politics for the paper in the 1940’s and 50’s. This was the time that he came to know politicians like Harry Truman, Prescott Bush(the father of George Bush), and many others. He died from pancreatic cancer in September 1960, during my sophomore year of college. I’m sorry you never got to know him.”

This story is a work in progress. Please stay tuned for Part 2 and the answer to, “Who was Ella?” in the next installment:

My Grandfather’s Political Buttons, Part II: The FDR Years, The Kennedys, Obama and Hillary

Life-long artist and designer. I love creative writing, live music, acoustic guitar, golden doodles, border collies, nature, cycling and organic food. She/her.

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