An Innovative Lapel Pin?

As we get ready for the launch of the first lapel pin mobile phone, let’s consider lapel pins for a second. Are they usually vessels for innovation?

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: It only took us 15 years, but we have finally figured out how to install the brains of a computer into the heart of a lapel pin. Recently, the startup Humane, founded by a pair of Apple design alums not named Jony Ive, announced the AI Pin, a device that is intended to fully replace a smartphone with a set of gestures, a tiny laser projector, and the vocal processing power of artificial intelligence. It makes for great demo, as the clip on their website suggests, but it’s to be seen how it will go over in the real world. But it has me thinking—hey, lapel pins don’t really come up in the same sentence as “innovative” all that often. Is now a good time to talk about lapel pins in today’s Tedium? I say so. May you never forget yours. — Ernie @ Tedium

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The name of the enamel technique used in the creation of lapel pins. As explained by the Met Museum’s Department of Asian Art, the technique involves the use of colored glass paste, melted and placed into carefully designed enclosures. The approach is older than you think, dating to the Byzantine Empire in the 13th century and later being formalized by the Yuan Dynasty in China—highlighting an early way that Western culture influenced Chinese innovation.

Soviet Znachki

Examples of znachki dating to the 1970s. (Michael Neubert/Flickr)

In Soviet Russia, kids once collected lapel pins like baseball cards

We’re nearly two years into a deadly war in Ukraine initiated by the Russian government, which makes it a weird time to talk about anything novel from a Soviet Union history standpoint, but the truth of the matter is, we cannot talk about lapel pins without talking about the Soviet Union’s historic obsession with them; it’s one of the most interesting things about lapel pins. (With that in mind, I want to make clear that, in the spirit of writing about settled things, I separate vintage cultural artifact from modern global conflict.)

That obsession with lapel pins dates at least to the 19th century, when such pins were given as a reward to workers, but in the 20th century, they became out-and-out collectibles. In the 1960s, at a time when baseball cards were just starting to become a popular collectible among American children, Russian children embraced “znachki” with a similar fervor.

In many ways, lapel pins were actually bigger in Russia than baseball cards were in the U.S. Back in the day, people collected these things like Pogs, or like stickers on the back of their laptops. And it considering the trend from the outside in generally felt a little weird.

The news of the prominence of this trend hit American shores in 1974, in a widely syndicated New York Times article. (Which we’re linking via a newspaper archive because we avoid linking NYT when we can.) In the article, it’s noted that the lapel pin fad tended to favor rarity or exoticness, just like baseball cards.

“When foreign sports teams come to Moscow, they are besieged by znachki hunters looking for a rare foreign lapel pin,” the piece noted.

The Times wasn’t the only organization to spot the trend. A 1975 document titled “A Report by the US Historic Preservation Team of the US-USSR Joint Working Group on the Enhancement of the Urban Environment,” essentially tracking historic preservation efforts in the Soviet Union at a time when relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union were beginning to thaw, noted that sellers of these lapel pins were downright common.

In one passage:

It was also in Suzdal that we were introduced to two tourist-related activities managed in large part by the private sector in Soviet preservation. These were the manufacture and sale of regional crafts and lapel pins. Everywhere we went in the Soviet Union we were presented with handsomely designed lapel pins which often featured local architectural monuments. Large trays of such lapel pins were displayed in Suzdal kiosks. We were to amass diverse personal collections during the course of our stay. A reconstructed wooden house served as a sales outlet for native handicraft, featuring decorated woodware, the famed Russian palekh, or lacquered papier mache chests, and assorted jewelry. The sale of lapel pins and handicrafts, we were to learn later, represents a source of revenue for the societies for the preservation of cultural monuments.

This popularity actually proved something of a problem. The Times piece noted that all the metal being used in znachki production had put pressure on manufacturing infrastructure, leading to a scolding from Pravda.

“If strict controls are not imposed over the issuance of this product, then the damage will be ever-increasing,” the Times’ translation states. “So let pioneer Vasya (a mythical boy collector) go collect barnyard locks. It will be much cheaper for the state.”

But Pravda nudging Russian children away from collecting pins could only do so much—and it even created something of an interesting cultural dichotomy.

Later on, as the Cold War began to give way to Russian democracy, commentators noted an unusual trend: The extreme popularity of American znachki over the Russian kind. Tom Kelly, an editorial writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel who had visited the Soviet Union in the late ’80s, recalled that he was able to get a whole bunch of Lenin pins in exchange for his single American flag pin:

Nothing could be more American than the flag, I thought, so I affixed one of the embarrassingly tacky little pins to my jacket and filled my pockets with the rest the first time I ventured out on the streets of Moscow in 1988.

What happened next was a revelation. If the U.S. Supreme Court needs any further convincing of the potent symbolism of the Stars and Stripes, I suggest it try trading pins in Russia.

A crowd of kids surrounded me as soon as they saw the flag. They jostled each other to display the pins they wanted to exchange, all of them much more impressive than my humble flag.

I finally settled on a half-dollar-sized head of Lenin as the prize I wanted and extracted a flag from my pocket for the lucky trader. Disappointed at first, the others suddenly realized I had more than one flag, so they pressed even closer dis-playing their wares. The bidding quickly escalated to two or three Soviet pins for each flag.

Lady Izdihar, a Russian historian, talks about her collection of lapel pins and how she stores them.

These days, Soviet pins remain a hot commodity, at least among fans of Soviet culture, and still periodically show up in the West in eBay form. As noted in Atlas Obscura in 2020, znachki is no longer the big mainstream trend it once was in Russia. But it does reflect a kitsch symbolism that some still gravitate towards.

“In 1972 employees of the White House wore lapel pins while they advocated burglary, wiretapping, committed perjury, impugned the patriotism of those who disagreed with them and threw due process into the shredder. I think it is apparent that a redefinition of patriotism is very much in order in this country.”

— Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-CT), as quoted in the Congressional Record in 1974, about two and a half months before Richard Nixon resigned from office as a result of his role in the Watergate scandal. Weicker’s comments highlight how lapel pins often matter as a form of strong symbolism, especially in highly professional settings like the White House or Congress. Flag pins, for example, were famously popular among American politicians in the years after September 11th—to the point where it became a thing after Barack Obama decided to stop wearing it during his 2008 presidential campaign. His reasoning for doing so was similar to the criticism that Weicker made more than 30 years earlier, and given that he became president, it didn’t seem to hurt him all that much.

Triforce Pin

We need more politicians repping the Triforce. (Danny Kim/Unsplash)

That tiny mechanical pin holder you use for your lapel pins has a nickname. It’s “Dammit.” Really.

You have most assuredly run into the clip that often appears on the back of many pins. It’s a small piece of metal with two tiny flaps on either side, a mechanical device that tightens around a pin when you need it to stay, but loosens up the second you put a little pressure on those clips.

This thing has a name—a couple, really. Its best-known modern name is a butterfly clutch, so named after the motion the clip makes when you open it up, which looks vaguely like a butterfly.

If you go back a little further, though, you’ll find that it sometimes gets referred to under another name, a Ballou clutch, named for one of its inventors, Frederick A. Ballou Jr., who ran a jewelry manufacturer, B.A. Ballou & Company.

Lapel Pin Fastener Patent

Of all the years to file a patent for an innovative pin clutch, you could do a lot worse than 1942. (Google Patents)

In a 1942 patent filing, granted the next year, Ballou and his partner Melvin W. Moore discussed a device that stayed sturdy, but didn’t damage clothing:

One or the objects of this invention is to provide a securing device of this character which will serve as a guard for the end of the shank or stud which it grips to prevent contact with the pointed end of the shank which might cause abrasion either to the hand of the user or to the fabric of clothing with which it might come in contact.

Another object of the invention is to limit the insertion of the shank element into the securing device while at the same time securely holding and gripping the shank to prevent removal of the shank such as through the clothing which it pierces in order to hold a button in position.

Another object of the invention is to provide an effective guard for the shank which is to be gripped while at the same time leaving the clutch operating arms accessible for manual manipulation it is desired to remove the securing device from the shank.

And as I’m sure you noticed by the timing of this invention, it came for the perfect time to be closely associated with World War II, and that’s how I found more information about it.

Dr. Howard G. Lanham, who developed a Tripod website on military patches and insignia, has a page on his site discussing the different methods used to pin insignia to clothing. Often, these tools required screw posts, or used a different design from the Ballou design, which found wide use during World War II.

Butterfly Clutch

An example of the Ballou clutch, also known as the butterfly clutch. Yes, someone invented this!

“It seems that wing badge collectors in particular are fond of reminding others that clutch fasteners existed prior to the Second World War,” Lanham wrote. “They are correct about that. However, the truth is that prior to World War II clutch fasteners were not used on any kind of government-issued, enlisted insignia and were found on a minority of other kinds of privately purchased insignia, mostly worn by officers. The vast majority of pre-World War Two insignia still were pin-back or screw back in construction.”

Two other pin-clutching designs, which did not look anything like the much more common Ballou design, existed before it, but we ultimately see the Ballou pin clutch most commonly today.

However, there has been room for innovation since then, and more recently, it’s been common to see magnetic backs, which have the nice benefit of not requiring you to pierce your clothing at all just to get your lapel pin to stick. (It does come with a downside, however: If you have a pacemaker, you’re not supposed to put magnets near it—which means that magnetic backs are out.)

Pin holders are a total pain to lose, which explains why they are sometimes called DAMMITs, a brand name used by the company Quik-Pin for its pin retainers, which aren’t made of brass like the Ballou clips are.

I have no clue if the Humane AI Pin is going to be a hit. It’s a weird device, one that seems to be looking for an audience among people who want to remain in the moment without having a screen to get in the way. I’m not saying that audience doesn’t exist—it just feels like it hasn’t been tested yet.

Either way, it’s certainly the most innovative lapel pin of all time, using a mechanical clip that includes a built-in battery to ensure it’s easy to hold.

Up to this point, lapel pins have not really been a target for much in the way of innovation beyond the fact that they are good ways to quietly symbolize your point of view on something. Perhaps the closest thing we’ve had to it, honestly, is the iPod Shuffle, an MP3 player that, for most of its generations, was designed to clip onto your clothing much like a pin. (It, of course, used an alligator-style pin, rather than a Ballou clutch, which makes sense because pins are probably bad choices for MP3 players that kids use.)

There was also the sixth-generation iPod Nano, but that was better known as a makeshift watch than something you wore like a lapel pin. And maybe you could make the case that the Rode lavalier mics you see all those YouTubers wearing is pretty innovative. But a mainstream device that regular people might wear as a pin? It’s pretty much the Humane AI Pin, and a couple of things that aren’t technically pins.

Wearables like rings have become smart, so perhaps it was a matter of time before the lapel pin also gained a brain. But the question I gotta ask is, who puts so much thought into lapel pins that they think they make excellent choices to replace your smartphone? Really?

Someone was bound to come up with it, I guess.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And yeah, weird week. See you in a couple days!


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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