Lithograph Pinback Buttons (And One Unique Contraption)

Many pinback button collectors are familiar with the birth of celluloid pinback buttons.  Two dates are typically associated with their invention, either 1894 or 1896.  One of these dates is presented on a paper insert often placed in the back of a celluloid pinback button.  The engineering process used to create celluloid pinback buttons is rather complicated.  It begins with an image on paper that is laminated with a protective celluloid (plastic) cover.  The paper image and celluloid cover are then crimped to a piece of metal that has been shaped with a die to create a concave flange and secured with a round metal ring (called a “collet”).  The trough created by the curl and collet provides a channel into which a spring pin is placed, permitting the pinback button to be attached to clothing for wearing. There are also other variations to this basic design, mostly involving the pinning mechanism.

What all celluloid pinback buttons have in common is technical complexity in their construction (with associated cost to the buyer).  It is no wonder that some celluloid pinbacks today look as good as the day they were made.  These pinbacks were very well constructed and have withstood the test of time.  As such, it seems rather remarkable to me that a simpler method to make pinbacks did not come along for almost another 25 years.  This column is about the invention of the second type of pinback button.  The technology was much simpler, and the cost to the buyer was much less.  They are known as lithograph pinback buttons.

I was able to locate two original documents filed with the U.S. Patent Office regarding inventions pertaining to lithograph pinback buttons.  History would ultimately reveal one was a smashing success, and one was (apparently) a dismal failure.  This column will feature a single lithograph pinback button/badge to demonstate both inventions.

Lithograph pinback buttons are characterized by their simplicity of construction.  Just as with celluloid pinback buttons, there are different variations in design.  The most basic design begins with a flat piece of metal (tin).  No paper is involved.  First, the sheet of tin is painted with a background color.  Upon drying, words and/or a graphic image are applied with ink.  Depending upon the particular design of the item, a third step might involve applying a thin coating of lacquer after the ink has dried to help preserve the image, in much the same way as the layer of celluloid (plastic) protects a celluloid pinback button.  Next a die stamps or cuts out the images that have been created on the sheet of tin.  This simple design technology is the basis for what the hobby calls “tabs.”  Since a tab is usually just a flat piece of metal, it is affixed to clothing (i.e., the top of a shirt pocket) by bending back the top portion of the tab.  Some well-known baseball tabs in the hobby include a tab celebrating Early Wynn’s 300th victory, a set of team tabs from the early 1960s, and the “Our National Game” player tabs of the 1930s.  An unusual variation to the typical flat tab is a set of team and player “bubble” tabs issued in the 1930s where the tabs are on the sides instead of the top.

A second variation of lithograph pinback buttons is the paint and ink are applied to tin, a die cuts out a circle around the image, and then another die creates a flange (i.e., the curl).  Finally, a spring pin is inserted under the curl for wearing.  Because no protective lacquer is applied to the ink, these pinbacks are water soluble.  An example of this type of lithograph pinback button would be the Cracker Jack pin set of the 1930s.

Finally, a third variation does involve the application of lacquer to the images before they are cut and shaped into round pinbacks.  An example of this type of lithograph pinback is the 1956 Topps pin set.  No matter what type of design technology is used, lithograph pinbacks are more easily damaged (usually by scratching) than celluloid pinbacks.

James L. Lynch was a Chicago industrialist who ran a sheet metal company.  He applied for a patent to make lithograph pinback buttons.  The title of his patent application was “Process of Making Buttons.”  The date of the original application was March 9, 1912.  Lynch finally got his invention patented on February 13, 1917.  The number is 1,215,675 from the U.S. Patent Office.  Here is the direct transcript of his patent application:

“The usual type of button as heretofore constructed has consisted of a metal base over which a printed design and thereafter a sheet of celluloid is secured, and the various elements are then permanently associated with one another in the forming of dies for the button.

By my invention, however, I am enabled to produce a button of the same appearance and durability, although at much less cost.

It is an object of my invention to produce a button constructed of metal having any desired design in any derived color or combination printed or lithographed directly on the metal itself, and with a transparent protecting coating applied to give a high gloss and approve the appearance thereof.

After the desired designs are applied to the metal, a liquid solution is applied thereto by painting, rolling, dipping, pouring, or by an air spray, which dries with a high luster and forms an elastic coating on the sheet very similar to a celluloid covering.  The button blank is then stamped from the sheet, and is then passed through suitable dies to form an inturned flange, serving as a retaining means for a pin and clasp wire, for the completed button.

By this process a button is thus formed which is exactly similar in appearance to the ordinary type of paper and celluloid covered metal buttons, but which is produced at exceedingly less cost, and furthermore, owing to the fact that in its finished condition, it is essentially an all-metal construction, it is far more durable than the other older type of button.”

While it is easy to play “Monday Morning Quarterback” 98 years after the invention was proposed, Lynch was partially correct about the value of lithograph pinback buttons.  He was correct about them being of all-metal construction, and he was correct that they are less costly than celluloid pinback buttons.  Where we could argue with Lynch is that history has shown that lithograph pinback buttons are, in fact, not “far more durable than the other older type of button.”

Lithograph pinback buttons went on to become a staple of the industry.  They are still made today.  Mr. Lynch undoubtedly prospered financially from his invention.  Nearly one-hundred years later, collectors of pinback buttons have to worry about reproductions and fantasies.  It should be duly noted that these hobby concerns apply only to celluloid pinback buttons.  It would be virtually impossible to reproduce lithography on metal unless one had access to the original design technology.

Mr. Lynch obtained another patent on a second invention pertaining to lithograph pinback buttons.   I was able to obtain an obscure specimen of it for this column.  While his first invention was a commercial success, the second one apparently was a dismal failure.  Furthermore, in the patent application process, Lynch made a statement that confirms what many hobbyists have long suspected about the object of their collecting interest.

On November 27, 1911, six months before filing his original patent application for lithograph pinback buttons, Lynch submitted another patent application entitled “Attaching Means for Buttons and Badges.”  The patent on the invention was granted on November 26, 1912, patent number 1,045,160.  The following is a direct transcript of his patent application:

“In many labor organizations, the various unions recognized the members of the union to obtain a monthly button or badge evidencing the continued good standing of the member in such union.  Such buttons or badges are required to be worn or exhibited during the month upon the clothing or cap of the member, and at the end of the month a new button or badge is issued and the old button thrown away or destroyed.  This entails considerable waste, as the entire structure is discarded….Furthermore, the frequent attachment and detachment of such device to the clothing soon injures the garment, rendering the same unsightly.  The object of this invention is to afford an attaching device adapted for use in connection with a button top, to removably engage the same upon the clothing without the necessity of removing the attaching means or pin from the clothing and enabling any desired button top of a standard size, to be immediately secured in place in lieu thereof, if desired.  It is also an object to the invention to afford an exceedingly strong and secure engagement of the button with the garment, preventing the disengagement therefrom except with intent.”

The following shows a scan of both the front and back of Lynch’s invention.  It happens to be a Boston Red Sox pinback.  I believe it was either a salesman’s sample or a demo of the construction process.  I recently acquired this pinback to illustrate its most unusual design features.  Mr. Lynch’s patented invention has two parts, and both are unique.  I have never before seen either part.  While a picture is worth a thousand words, I will try to describe it verbally.



The top half is, by far, the more intriguing.  It is an engineering marvel.  It is a single piece of wire.  If you were to stretch it out, it probably would be eight inches in length.   The wire is thicker than in any other pinning mechanism that I have ever seen.  The two ends of the wire culminate in the same place.  The engineering design is so tight that upon casual inspection it almost looks like one continuous piece of metal, with no beginning and no end.

One end of the pin has been sharpened to a point, the end that pierces the garment.  From the point, the wire extends about 1.50” until you come to essentially a double loop.  It is this loop that provides the tension in the spring pin (just as in a conventional safety pin).  The wire then extends at a 45- degree angle downward, followed by another 45-degree bend downward in the wire.  Now it is perpendicular to the pointed end of the wire.  Following a slight (about 1/8”) bend backwards (creating a “notch”), the wire now heads back 180 degrees to the main part of the pin.  Then there is a very tight complete reversal in the direction of the wire, creating the illusion of two parallel wires.  The wire then doubles back yet again, heading toward the pointed end.  The final part of the wire creates an oval-shaped loop, which serves to house the sharpened end of the wire (and protect the wearer from being impaled).

By design the wire has so much tension in it that the pinning mechanism is more difficult to engage than a conventional spring pin.  It was Lynch’s intent that once affixed to a garment, the pin would remain there.  As such, the pin is not particularly easy to open or close.  The pin was engineered so precisely that the blunt end of the wire abuts part of the loop.  By any reasonable standard, this is the most elaborate and sophisticated pinning mechanism yet invented for pinback buttons.

The bottom half of Lynch’s creation is also no “plain vanilla” fare either.  The badge has an unusual diameter for a pinback (either celluloid or lithograph), 2 & ¼”.  By comparison, the large PM10 pins are 2 & 1/8”.  But most distinctive is its design.  It is half-way between a flat tab and a typical lithograph pinback.  It does have a slight curl (90 degrees) to it, but the curl is not pronounced enough to create a trough.  If you tried to place a typical spring pin in it, the pin would immediately fall out.  The curl is just enough that the metal flange can be holed.  At the 12:00 position is such a hole.  The badge is affixed to the attaching spring mechanism by inserting the tip of the “parallel wires” into the hole, then sliding the badge down to the point where it rests in the “notch.”  The depth of the notch is such that the badge hangs straight and is not pinched by the wire, and thus dangles freely beneath the attaching mechanism.

Lynch customized the design of the badge to complement the design of the pinning mechanism.  There would be no way to wear the badge without his pinning mechanism.  To the best of my memory, I have never seen a holed lithograph pin/badge before.  I have seen holed celluloid pinbacks before, but the hole was usually at the 6:00 position.  They were typically football pins, and beneath the pinback dangled some metal football-related adornment.  I have seen these pinbacks minus the adornment, and I have seen adornments that had become separated from the pinback.  It would be possible to re-create such a pinback by uniting the two parts that were originally not joined together.  The hobby is divided on the integrity of pinbacks that have been so altered.

But what would/could you salvage from one-half of Lynch’s invention?  Probably nothing.  Either you would have a badge with no way to wear it, or you would have an attaching mechanism with nothing to hang beneath it.  As such, Lynch followed the marketing principle of product differentiation.  Quite literally, his invention differentiated itself from every other product in the pinback market.

So what are we to make of Lynch’s invention a century after its birth?   I conclude it was a commercial failure.  Recall from the patent application that this product was designed to reduce wear and tear on clothing from the continuous attaching and removing of pins.  Perhaps the market concluded that doing so did no serious harm to a garment.  As such, the invention was likely regarded as a solution to a non-problem.  I can think of no other viable explanation for why there are no other known surviving specimens of Lynch’s patented idea.

I should note that I might have previously seen one other Lynch badge (but not the pinning mechanism).  It was long ago and my memory is not clear.  I do recall seeing a lithograph pin for the 1926 Army-Navy game played at Soldier Field in Chicago.  I remember it was orange in color.  I recall looking at it in bewilderment.   I was struck by the fact that it did not have a curl deep enough to hold a typical spring pin.  In short, there was no way a person could wear it.   I can’t remember if it was holed or not.  If any reader has this pin, I would enjoy hearing from you.  The reverse of this Red Sox badge states “J.L. Lynch, 77 W. Washington St, Chicago, ILL. Pat’s applied for.”  In the middle is the union logo for the Amalgamated Sheetmetal Workers International Alliance.

As a final note, I am intrigued by the dates of these two patents.  Lynch first applied for (and received) the patent on his attaching mechanism.  This patent took one day short of a year to be granted.  The patent on the lithograph pinback button took nearly a full five years to be granted, first applied for in March, 1912 and finally approved in February, 1917.  When I was researching this column I was tempted to call Lynch the “father” of lithograph pinback buttons.  I now believe he was but one of several individuals who contributed to creating this type of pinback.  The five-year time period between the original application and final approval suggests that at that time the U.S. Patent Office was also evaluating related products submitted by other inventors.

This blog is about baseball pinback buttons (plus an occasional column about other sports).  I debated whether I would have written a column if this badge were not sports-related.  I probably would have, but the fact this badge is baseball-related just made it a delightful coincidence.

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