Oh, celluloid, how I love thee. I found these two celluloid pinback buttons at a coin show, of all things. Amidst the sea of coins, there was a display case that contained a few small trinkets; GAR medals and political buttons mostly. I began to walk away from the booth. But suddenly, my heart skipped a beat when I saw the name “Lusitania” peering back at me. I froze in my footsteps, instantly intrigued. Was the pin a period advertisement for the infamous ocean liner? The plot thickened when I found a similar “Mauretania” button further back in the display case.
Like me, many of you have probably learned in school that Lusitania’s sinking was a catalyst for United States involvement in World War I. Having departed from New York City, Lusitania was six days into a trip toward Liverpool when she was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. The ship sunk in eighteen minutes and three-fifths of the passengers perished. Of the passengers, 128 were American.
With so much animosity surrounding Lusitania’s sinking, how do my celluloid buttons fit into the equation?
The pinbacks give us the answer.
These buttons were made by the Griffith & Rowland Press, originally of Philadelphia. The company was a well-known producer of religious reading material in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While many books published under the Griffith & Rowland name survive, little information can be found about the company itself.
Entries from auction websites, however, shed some light on the purpose of my buttons. One source notes that celluloid pinback buttons such as these were used in a Sunday school setting to promote higher attendance. To me, this theory sounds like pure bribery of children. I don’t completely buy it.
A listing on the Hake’s Americana and Collectibles website expands upon the issue. Not only did Griffith & Rowland make buttons that look like mine, but the company made some that included the ranks of ship staff. One could acquire a button that said “Captain,” “First Mate,” “Second Mate,” “Steward,” or “Purser.” This implies that some sort of role-playing game might have occurred. Going along with the Sunday school theme, I suspect these celluloid buttons were used during Rally Day.
The purpose of Rally Day was to bring Sunday school students together in celebration at the end of the summer. The event was a final hurrah before work began in the fall and winter. In addition to live music and other festivities, students marched in a procession to deliver their offering envelopes.
The Beacon Street Diary‘s history of Rally Day mentions a 1911 publication called The Sunday-School of Today. In this book, Rev. Lester Bradner identifies pins as one of several “Rally Day devices.” Bradner stated that such devices were most useful when they offered “a personal touch” and “an effective free advertisement scheme.”
My Lusitania and Mauretania pins certainly conform to Bradner’s specifications. The ocean liners are clearly depicted for reasons of advertisement (which means Lusitania had not yet sunk when these pins were made). Meanwhile, the ship ranks offer that bit of personal touch to hold one’s interest.
For such small objects, these pins are part of a large history. I have never attended Sunday school, but I’m quite grateful to reap the benefits of Rally Day.