ATTLEBORO, Mass. — From “We Want Willkie” to “I Like Ike” and beyond, political buttons have played a major role in almost every presidential election campaign since the early 20th century.

But it wasn’t until William Henry Harrison ran in 1840 that a revolutionary campaign strategy featuring a novelty made in Attleboro made the button an essential part of running for the nation’s highest office.

Since the days of George Washington, running for president had been expected to be a gentlemanly affair, free of the handshaking and baby-kissing associated with today’s campaigns.

Political medals and ribbons, where they did exist, were mostly commemoratives, like the one issued for George Washington’s inauguration.

“In those days, you weren’t supposed to act like you wanted the office, even though you really did,” said Ron Wade, a Texas collector and dealer in rare political buttons and memorabilia. “The candidate was supposed to be above it all.”

But that changed in the bare-knuckle campaign of 1840, when War of 1812 hero Harrison was nominated by the Whig party to run against Democrat President Martin Van Buren, to whom he had lost four years earlier.

Harrison actually made a strong showing in 1836, but he was one of three candidates who split the Whig vote.

buttons emerge as strategic

In 1840, the Whigs were united for the first time behind Harrison, and they had Van Buren on the ropes. Desperate, Democrats tried to portray Harrison as a rustic, “sitting around the log cabin, drinking hard cider.”

While it might have been intended as an insult, Harrison’s backers saw in the log cabin an opportunity to portray their candidate – who was actually from a wealthy background – as a man of the people. But to do that, they needed a mass marketing campaign.

Before long, the log cabin – often with a cider barrel out front – was used as a Harrison campaign symbol on everything from buttons to whiskey bottles and sewing boxes.

And, Attleboro got a piece of the action.

Obed Robinson, a Revolutionary War veteran, had begun manufacturing gilt clothing buttons in his small shop in what is now Attleboro Falls in the early years of the 19th century. By 1827, the R & W Robinson Co., then run by Robinson’s two sons, was one of the nation’s leading producers.

For business, as well as political reasons, it made sense that the Robinson company got involved in the campaign.

Patriarch Robinson pioneered the metal button business in the Northeast and had been a rock-ribbed Whig, a forerunner of today’s Republican party. No doubt, the habit was handed down to sons Richard and Willard.

So when the Harrison campaign came looking for a local manufacturer, R & W Robinson was glad to oblige.

Two still-shiny examples of the locally made Harrison buttons with the log cabin image remain today in the collection of the Attleboro Area Industrial Museum.

Campaign buttons in the 1800s were different than the ones used to tout modern political candidates.

“Originally, a political button was actually something to be sewn onto a garment,” Wade said. “The pin-back buttons that we know today didn’t come until later.”

History doesn’t record how many supporters actually displayed the buttons on their frock coats, but the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign was wildly successful for candidate Harrison. He trounced Van Buren in both the popular and electoral vote that year.

ABE FIRST TO SHOW FACE

Regardless how much the Harrison buttons and other hoopla influenced the election’s outcome, political buttons would become an indispensable part of every subsequent presidential campaign.

Abraham Lincoln, whose real log cabin origins were touted in his successful 1860 campaign, proved to be a major innovator by putting his likeness on buttons and medals worn by his supporters.

“By that time, you had tintype images, and those could be printed on campaign buttons, too,” Wade said.

For the first time in presidential history, voters could actually see what the candidate they were promoting looked like. To Lincoln, who often joked about his homeliness, it was none too clear if that helped or hurt his chances.

The modern style of campaign button, a metal disc bearing a slogan or candidate’s picture that can be pinned to a coat or shirt, didn’t appear until the presidential campaign of 1896, when Republican William McKinley faced off against Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Those buttons, made of metal covered with paper and celluloid, featured the images of the candidates and their running mates. The buttons proved so popular that numerous original McKinley issues remain in private collections, Wade said.

BUTTONS IN THE MASS MEDIA AGE

Messages on political buttons have gone through a number of transformations over the years, even though the standard pin-on metal disc has remained the same.

Originally just a surface on which to display the name or face of a candidate, buttons have been emblazoned with memorable slogans like “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right” for Barry Goldwater, to “Run Ben Run” for this year’s Ben Carson.

The function of political buttons has also changed, from a method of persuading voters to support a candidate, to permitting backers to feel a closer connection to the campaign, said Brian Frederick, an associate professor of political science at Bridgewater State University.

“Back during the 19th century, when they were seeking to enfranchise a broader population, buttons helped communicate ideas about a candidate to those who might not be as educated as the elite,” he said.

“Now that we live in a mass media age, the importance of things like buttons has more to do with supporters feeling they’re a part of something and showing their solidarity with a candidate.”

Buttons have been used to portray negative as well as positive messages about candidates. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 campaign, a bevy of anti-FDR buttons were minted, either by backers of Republican Wendell Willkie or others opposed to a third term. One even compared the president to Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin.

Sometimes, a presidential candidate’s image was all that was needed to promote the campaign. During John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run, a popular button merely showed the handsome Massachusetts senator and his name on a white button trimmed in red and blue.

In recent years, presidential campaign materials have evolved to include bags of peanuts used in the Jimmy Carter campaign to T-shirts, bobble heads and ball caps.