What do Yellow Kid, Mickey Mouse, and Dick Tracy have in common? They all appeared on comic pinbacks. These celluloid advertising buttons from the 1890s to the mid-20th century were given away by tobacco companies, newspapers, and the makers of breakfast cereals to drive sales. Today they are collected in their own right.
Some of the most prolific producers of comic pinbacks were Whitehead and Hoag, Bastian Brothers, and the Saint Louis Button Company. In particular, Whitehead and Hoag began manufacturing pinbacks in 1896, cutting its teeth on advertising buttons for the American Tobacco Co. and presidential campaign buttons for both William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. The company retooled during World War II to make identification buttons for people working in war plants, but by the 1950s the firm was out of gas and sold itself to competitor Bastian.
Naturally, these firms also made comic pinbacks, commissioned by bread companies such as Buster Brown, cereal manufacturers like Kellogg’s, and newspapers such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer, all of whom wanted to get their brands on the shirts, jackets, and caps of impressionable youngsters. Comic characters such as Little Orphan Annie, Barney Google, and Skeezix would proclaim their allegiances to these products, transforming the children who wore these pinbacks into delivery mechanisms for the ads.