Collecting Pinbacks, Fobs, Stickpins and Gun Club Medals

The days when firearm and ammunition companies promoted their products with free celluloid pinbacks and stick pins are gone.  Today attendance pins, usually metal, are still given away at the Grand American and a few other major shoots.  Those who do still use them for promotion, large manufacturers like Winchester, Remington, Browning, and Federal Cartridge, still feel it is beneficial to make that contact with contestants.

Today there are few people who are aware that in the 1880’s to 1890’s trapshooting was as popular as baseball.  Firearm manufacturers, powder companies such as Dupont, and ammunition companies promoted their products with many different types of advertising.  Celluloid pinbacks were one of those advertising mediums.  As early as 1895, representatives and professionals employed by these companies distributed the pinbacks at hardware stores, gun clubs, shooting exhibitions and expositions.

Celluloid (cellulose nitrate) was invented in the mid-1890’s and not long after it’s invention, companies like U.M.C., Peters, L.C. Smith, Dead Shot, White Flyer, Dickeybird, Pacific Coast Target Co., Winchester and Remington all began using these little plastic covered pins to promote their products.

The major pinback producer of the time was Whitehead and Hoag of Newark, New Jersey.  This company produced medals and pinbacks from 1880 to 1955.  Additional manufacturers of pinbacks were Bastian Bros. Co. of Rochester, New York, Ehrman Mfg. Co., of Milford New Hampshire, J. B. Carroll Buttons of Chicago, Illinois and others.

Celluloid pinbacks were produced in different sizes and shapes, but the 7/8” pinback was the most common size used  in promoting .

Peters Cartridge Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, beyond any doubt had the most graphic designs.  The graphics of these little pins are unbelievable.  Most of their pinbacks contained the same designs and logos used on shell boxes and other forms of advertising of that period. Peters also was the most prolific advertiser of   pinbacks. I know of at least 32  Peters pinback designs.

Dupont and its subsidiaries also used very graphic designs on their gunpowder pinbacks.  The Dupont woodcock is one of the most difficult of these pinbacks to find.  This pinback features a unique design in that the rim of the pinback is made to look as if the woodcock took a bite out of it.  A novice collector might think that this is a flaw, but in fact, it is part of the design.

Winchester took a different approach to their advertising.  Instead of using graphic designs associated with their products, they used the image of professional shooters to represent their companies.  Gilbert, Crosby, Spencer, Taylor and the famous exhibition shooters Ad and Pinky Topperwein were the representatives most often seen on Winchester pinbacks.  During the long Winchester career of the Topperweins, five different pinback variations bearing their images were given out. The first two

Winchester Topperwein pinbacks featured only Ad Topperwein.   Pinky was an expert trapshooter and prior to being a representative for Winchester, she promoted American Powder Mills.  She is pictured on a beautiful sepia colored Dead Shot Powder pinback.

Annie Oakley, is found on five different pinbacks.  The Schultze Powder Annie Oakley pinbacks feature one design in two color variations, sepia and dark green.  The other Oakley pinbacks are from U.M.C. and are all completely different designs. 

As with most things being collected, condition is very important.  The paper back with the button maker on it is preferred.  The pinback should have good color.  Celluloid is light sensitive, and as these pinbacks were worn on coats and shooting jackets, fading was common.  The pinback should be without cracks, scratches and should be clear, not cloudy.  Moisture was also a destroyer, creating a “foxed” surface.   Foxing greatly reduces the value of a pinback, as does faded color..  The metal back of the pinback should be free of rust, which might show through to the front of the pinback.  A compromise can be made on condition when purchasing very rare pinbacks, and those in poorer condition can be used to finance upgrades.

Celluloid is a very volatile early form of plastic that is no longer being used, except for ping pong balls.  Therefore, counterfeit celluloid pinbacks are presently nonexistent. Celluloid pinbacks were produced in different sizes and shapes, but the 7/8” pinback was the most common size. Today, large copies of pinbacks are being sold as “badges”.  Reputable sellers will advertise these as reproductions in their descriptions.  Reproductions such as these are made in two pieces and do not have a back paper.  It is important to see both front and back of the pins.  Size is also an important piece of information needed when contemplating a purchase. With this information, you can be assured that you are looking at a genuine pinback.  Of course, requesting return privileges on any internet purchases is always a wise course of action to follow.

·     Condition and then rarity are the most important aspects to consider, whether building a collection or buying for resale. Look for good color and no scratches or cracks to celluloid pinbacks. Back paper adds to value. Fobs and stickpins should have a nice patina and enamel.

·     Purchase from a reputable seller who offers return privileges. If unsure about authenticity of an item, contact other collectors with questions before purchasing.

·     Research the subject before purchasing.  Know the characteristics of the item, such as who manufactured the item.  Pinbacks, fobs, shooting medals and stickpins usually have a maker on the reverse.  When the maker is unclear or unreadable, it probably is a reproduction.

·     Newer plastic on pinbacks has wrinkles celluloid doesn't. Celluloid was registered in 1870, but the first use in pinbacks was 1896. The only item made from celluloid today is the ping-pong ball. It's a very volatile form of plastic. The celluloid face of the pinback made before modern printing techniques was a lithograph.

·     Winchester made only dark blue, yellow and red stickpins.  Reproductions can be identified by the head stamp showing through on the reverse side and by the twist on the shaft of the pin.  The U.M.C. Arrow Stickpin is a 1960's reproduction.

·     While gold is sometimes unmarked, it should be noted that gold plating was done in the mid 1800's.  Also, aluminum in the 1870's and 1890's was considered a rare metal due to the inability to mass produce. Aluminum medals during this period are rare.

·     The back pin or clasp can assist in determining age. Some of the earliest celluloid pinbacks have a hinged interlocking pin that fits into a notch in the rim.  Gun club medals that have a quality hinged pin and “C' clasp are 1800's to very early 1900's.

·     There may be small variations to a celluloid pinback like location of trademark, color and maker.

·     Excess heat, cold or moisture can damage a celluloid pinback.

·     Pinbacks that are 1&1/4” and have a full metal back added to the pinback are most likely modern reproductions made to look like old pinbacks.  These are fun to collect and don't take up a lot of room. However as with any collectible item, it reaches a point in value that it would be profitable to reproduce.

·     There are two types of counterfeiters: reproductions and forgeries.  A reproduction is usually sold as such initially, but can be confused or misrepresented as an original with subsequent sales. This is prevalent in calendars, paper shell boxes and advertising signs. This can discourage new collectors who don't know the difference.  Forgeries are deliberately made to deceive. I have seen only one 7/8” fake celluloid pinback in 20+ years of collecting.  It was done by trying to disassemble an original and insert a new paper.  I don't believe the old equipment used to make these beautiful pinbacks is in existence today.

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