Pearl Buttons and the American Dream

Pearl Shirt Buttons

Virtually every piece of printed ephemera produced in the United States tells a story about America, no matter how oblique. From time to time, I will briefly look at this graphic evidence to discuss what they reveal about the times and places they were made and distributed. Today let’s focus on the illustrated button cards so common during the teens through fifties.

They were ostensibly cheaply produced yet elaborate in many ways. The illustrations of the young man (top) and the little children (middle + bottom) reflect the idealism of the American dream. Blemish-free, ethnically and racially pure, these pearls exhibit the picture perfect, romantic aesthetic that Americans were supposed to strive for. (Here is a collection of them.)

What’s more, the children below and young man above represent the two poles of youth “culture.” You were either a kid or a young adult. There were no such thing as “teenagers” until the late 1940s. The idea of teenagers was a marketing tool to garner more consumers. Before that, after 13 or 14 teenagers were expected to mimic adults in dress and attitude.

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