The roots of the hobby were formed in the collecting of trading cards. Soon collectors branched out to autographs, and now the hobby enjoys an organized and growing base of game used/worn collectors. Just as in the past, collecting can always evolve to new areas of interest. With almost three years of researching and authenticating under my belt, I have found the science and disciplines of authenticating bats and jerseys can be applied to other areas. One area that I see a lot of potential in is pinback buttons.

One cannot begin to speak about pinback buttons without mentioning the godfather of the subject, Ted Hake. According to his own biography originally published on the jacket of his 1972 Button book,

“Ted Hake is a Philadelphia “collectibles” dealer and consultant in the area of popular culture. In 1969 he received an M.A. degree in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School of Communication where he specialized in institutional communication and popular culture. After short jobs in advertising and industrial communication, he became a full time dealer in 1970. He issues mail auctions and sales catalogs featuring all types of buttons, watch fobs, advertising mirrors, radio, movie, and comic character items.”

Mr. Hake has published many additional volumes on the subject of pinback buttons with special attention paid to political and character buttons. Currently he operates Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, A Division of Diamond International Galleries (hakes@hakes.com). His 1972 button book addressed the two main types of buttons that collectors and the manufacturing processes used to produce them:

1. Celluloid
2. Tin Lithography

Hake writes, “Celluloid buttons were first associated with the 1888 presidential campaigns of Harrison (16th President), Cleveland, Thurman, and Fisk. The pictures were made by printing ink directly on a celluloid disc. Celluloid was also being used for bookmarks and advertising cards by 1888. “ With the origin established, Hake goes on to explain the manufacturing of the button

“In a badge pin or button, in combination, with a shell having a marginal rim or bead, a covering bearing an inscription, design, emblem, or the like, over said shell and having its edges turned down over said marginal rim, a ring or collect in said shell placed over the edge of said covering to hold or secure the latter in position, and a bar or pin having one of its ends bent to form a holding portion adapted to be secured in said ring or collet, substantially as and for the purposes set forth.”

Hake writes that by 1920, lithographed tin buttons were used for that year’s presidential campaign.

“Lithographed buttons are stamped and shaped by a die from one large sheet of tin upon which many images of the button are printed. The process is quicker and less expensive that the process required to produce celluloid (now acetate) covered buttons. Currently, celluloid buttons seem saved from extinction only because economics require lithographed buttons to be produced in a minimum lot of 10,000 to be profitable to the manufacture.”

The different manufacturing process is a rudimentary beginning in the understanding of pinback buttons.

Hake’s auctions have featured many fine examples of both political and sports pinback buttons. Back issues of the catalog allow the collector to examine what is available to interested collectors.

With pinback buttons having its birth in the political arena, it wasn’t long when pinbacks were used to promote a myriad of products, events, and pastimes. It makes perfect sense that “Our National Pastime” would soon be marketed through pinback buttons. One collector of baseball pinbacks was Dr. Paul M. Muchinsky.

In 2004, Dr. Paul M. Muchinsky completed a very ambitious undertaking. Through his hard work, the book, “Baseball Pinback Buttons” was published by Great Oaks Press www.greatoakspress.com. The book is a hard covered monster of 586 full color pages carefully categorized and accompanied by a comprehensive price guide.

The categories make perfect sense and allow collectors to think in an orderly fashion. The categories chosen by Mr. Paul Muchinsky and featured in his book are:

Spring Training Pinbacks
Opening Day Pinbacks
Welcome Franchise Pinbacks
Little League Pinbacks
Babe Ruth League & American Legion League Pinbacks
School and Local Baseball Team pinbacks
Minor League Team Pinbacks
Knothole Gang Pinbacks
Baseball Booster Pinbacks
1.25” Crossed Bats Pinbacks
1.75” Crossed Bats Pinbacks
Jackie Robinson Pinbacks
Negro League Pinbacks
Baseball Fan Club Pinbacks
Special Day Baseball Pinbacks
Baseball Advertising Pinbacks
1.75” Baseball Player Pinbacks
2.125” Baseball Player Pinbacks
Large Baseball Pinbacks
Player Accomplishments Pinbacks
Manager Pinbacks
All-Star Game Pinbacks
World Series Pinbacks
1961 New York Yankees Pinbacks
Miscellaneous Baseball Pinbacks

The book’s layout is well designed. Topics covered are: Identification of Baseball Pinback Buttons, Making of Pinback Buttons, How to discuss the sections of a button, Ribbons and Charms, Cataloging of Pinback Buttons, Dating of Baseball Pinback Buttons, Errors, Reproductions, and Fantasies, Size, and Value. Must read for anybody interested in the subject.

Similarities in grading bats/jerseys to pinback buttons

In the arena of collecting items related to sports, baseball card collecting has the longest history. The reason for its strong hold was the work completed by the hobby’s earliest pioneers. Collectors first want to know three things:

1. What is it I have? (identification)
2. How many are in a set? (cataloguing)
3. Is it real? (authentication)

When the question of “what is it I have?” is answered, collectors can then ask, “how many more do I need to complete this collection?” Once these two fundamental questions are answered, then one can ponder the issues of authenticity, condition and ultimately price.

While being involved with the authentication of some 4,400 game used/worn items, I can see potential for applying many of the foundations of evaluating game used/worn items to an additional category such as pinback buttons.

For example, when evaluating a bat, we must first:

(Points to ponder for the evaluation of Game Used Bats)

1. Determine manufacturing process= gamer vs. store model
2. Category= player model, coach, All Star, World Series, etc
3. Checklisting= create population report of players, eras, events, and conditions
4. Dating= determine label period
5. Authenticity and reproductions= look for authentic examples versus doctored or altered bats
6. Condition= Evaluate condition to aid in grading

Similarities in Pinback buttons are:

(Points to ponder for the evaluation of Pinback buttons)

1. Determining manufacturing process= Litho vs. Celluloid
2. Category= Genre and purpose of issuance, such as football, baseball, boxing, etc and what event is being promoted such as Super Bowl, World Series, or individual accomplishment
3. Checklisting= identify sets, size differences, variations and create a population report
4. Dating= determine era/year of issuance by design, printing, or manufacturing processes
5. Authenticity and reproductions= look for authentic examples versus doctored, altered, or reproduced
6. Condition= Evaluate condition to aid in grading

Leveraging a database to evaluate pinback buttons

MEARS’s own LTC MEARS Auth, LLC introduced the concept of leveraging databases to evaluate items to the hobby. The same thought processes that went into game worn/used could be considered for pinback buttons. How does one create a database for an area that does not exist? As long as there are published catalogs and archived Internet auctions, the information is available. After procuring back issues of auction catalogs, manufactures catalogs, or surfing the net for completed auctions, the information per the sale description can be used to determine:

1. Manufacturer Process of lithography versus celluloid
2. Category of interest, i.e baseball, football, basketball, boxing, etc and event celebrated
3. Checklisting to determine if this was advertised as a single item or part of a set
4. Dating can be determined by style, design, printed information, or manufacturing processes.
5. Sizing is often used to determine original issuance versus later reproductions
6. Reported condition helps collectors determine how one button ranks among other known examples
7. Prices realized helps collectors determine a gauge of values

What cannot be determined solely by catalogs or Internet listings are:

1. Authenticity. A reproduction may be difficult to determine from a photo alone.
2. Actual condition. One can only list the condition per the description of the auction house. Only upon an in person visual inspection could actual condition be determined.

Determining Condition

Tin Lithography is the process where ink is applied directly to sheets of flat metal. The ink may be applied in one color, two color, sometimes more. An image or wording “marquee” style may be incorporated as the design. After the ink is applied and dried, the sheets are cut into circular disks. The buttons are then shaped to give them a “curl”. The curl may or may not contain information such as dating or manufacturer. Early buttons may have the manufacturers name stamped directly onto the reverse of the button or the information may be printed on a back paper and inserted into the back of the button. A removable spring pin is used to attach the button to clothing. It is important to understand the manufacturing process as each part that is used to make the final button needs to be examined to determine overall condition.

For tin litho pinback buttons since there is no protective covering over the factory printing, they are much more condition sensitive and prone to scratching. When evaluating tin litho pinback buttons, you must examine:

1. Condition of printing on front of button. Under a magnified light source, look for surface scratches, repainting, scratches that are deeper and cause loss of paint, denting, staining, or rusting.
2. Condition of reverse of button. Under a magnified light source, look for the same condition issues as the front
3. Examination of the spring pin. Look for rust, corrosion, and originality of the spring pin.

Celluloid buttons were first widely used by advertisers in 1896. Celluloid is a plastic covering and evolved as a more advance printing process than tin lithography. As Paul Muchinsky explained, “First, there is a photographic image on paper. Then a thin covering of plastic celluloid is placed over the image to protect it, a process known as lamination. The celluloid covered image is then placed over a round metal disk. The metal disk, the image on paper, and the celluloid covering are then crimped together, and in turn are held in place by a round metal ring called a “collet.” Finally, a pin is affixed to the pinback. Some celluloid pinback buttons have detachable spring pins, like those used with a lithograph pinback button. Other celluloid pinback buttons are made with a pin that cannot be removed, but is attached directly to the back of the pinback button. When evaluating celluloid pinback buttons, you must examine:

1. The celluloid covering. Since it is made of plastic, it is very scratch prone. Most of the condition problems of scratching, scraping, spotting, or fogging will be seen when examining the celluloid covering.
2. The use of a magnified light source will amplify any scratching to the covering.
3. Condition of reverse of button. Under a magnified light source, look for damage, rusting, scratching or soiling to the reverse of the button.
4. Examination of the detachable or attached pin. Look for rust, corrosion, note color of pin, and originality.

Determining Authenticity

As in all areas of collecting, determining authenticity is key factor to achieving collecting success. Forgeries and reproductions of popular and valuable pinback buttons have already been seen on the market. Experience and education is always the best tools to ward off the introduction of fake pins. Key elements of information to examine when purchasing pinback should be:

1. Is the size correct for the original issuance?
2. Is the print pattern correct for the original issuance?
3. Is the style of fastener, straight pin versus attached pin, correct?
4. Is the process correct for the original issuance, celluloid vs. lithograph?

With a little research, this article, and the books mentioned above, you too could enjoy collecting pinback buttons. Besides their unique nature, they make great display additions to the items you already collect. Love the Cardinals, why not look for a 1968 World Series pin with Ribbon? Admire Jackie Robinson? There are several great pinbacks featuring this Dodgers legend. With most pinbacks currently selling for less than $35.00, you can build a great collection on any budget that will most likely experience appreciation in the near future.


Troy R. Kinunen

Sources: The Button Book, Fully Illustrated including current prices of thousands of buttons from political campaign to advertising, by Ted Hake, Dafran House, 1972

Baseball Pinback Buttons by Paul M. Munchinsky, Great Oaks Press, 2004