George Washington used SWAG

A brief history lesson:

I love the show Pawn Stars on the History Channel. It is a guilty pleasure, with very little guilt. I have been fascinated since the first episode I saw. It is like the show’s opening says “you never know what is going to walk through those doors.” And that keeps me watching. They see everything there, and people are all too happy to sell their goods for a fraction of the value so they can run back to the tables (presumably… although some people say as much).

While watching an episode some time ago a man walked in with a series of three presidential buttons (one of which is shown here) commemorating the inauguration of George Washington in 1789. This was of particular interest since these buttons are the first know promotional products used in the United States. For the sake of the curious, the expert declared them to be worth $10,000, the owner sold them for $3,000.

Much like promotional products today, the intent of these inauguration buttons were to raise awareness. In the early 19th century (1800s) advertising calendars and rulers were circulated, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the promotional products really began to catch on. Credit for this is given to Jasper Freemont Meek. He owned a newspaper in Coshocton, Ohio. Having the equipment to do so, he looked to supplement his income by taking on additional printing jobs.

After seeing a child drop her books in the dirt on her way to school Mr. Meek approached his friend Mr. Cantwell, owner of Cantwell Shoes, with an idea to increase traffic and sales. Meek’s idea was to create a simple burlap book bag with the message “Buy Cantwell Shoes” imprinted on it. Cantwell would give every child who came into his store a free bag. The bag would then be seen all over town as the children went to and from the schoolhouse. Mr. Meek manufactured and printed the bag on his press, and both men reaped the rewards of the partnership.

The success of the book bag lead to the launch of his second promotional product; imprinted horse covers seen on horses throughout the town. Meek eventually formed the Tuscarora Advertising Co, established a sales force and enjoyed a successful promotional products company with little to no competition until 1889.

As with all successful business, competitors eventually formed. Enter Henry D. Beach, another newspaper owner. Both men began printing advertising on anything that could be run through a printing press: caps, aprons, marble bags, card cases, calendars and fans.

In 1904, 12 promotional product manufacturers got together and founded the industry’s first trade association. That organization is known today as the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI),

Today promotional products play a role in businesses everywhere. Countless companies rely on promotional products to promote their brand, attract new customers, and express appreciation to loyal customers.

How do you or your business use promotional products today?


As a side note:

While doing research for this post I came across this blog post detailing the loosely based “Brief History of Swag.” So for a completely inaccurate, clever, and humorous take on the subject, give it a read.


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