The History of Promotional Products

Promotional products in the United States date back to George Washington's presidential election in 1789, for which commemorative buttons were created and distributed. Today it is nearly impossible to imagine a political campaign without branded buttons, bumper stickers, yard signs and t-shirts.

At the beginning of the 19th century, calendars and rulers began to become more popular.  Then in the 1880s a printer named Jasper Meeks came up with the idea of promotional giveaways. He suggested to a bookstore that they provide burlap bags to a local school and advertise their logo on the front of the free bags. Meeks' idea quickly spread.

By 1900, the branded matchbook had become one very popular branded item for advertisers. Although matchbooks peaked as advertising tools in the mid-20th century, bars and restaurants continue to use them to a lesser extent today in their branding efforts.

Coca-Cola may be the most famous brander of custom products. Since its inception in 1886 Coca-Cola's advertising has become an integral part of America's visual culture. Today vintage beverage trays and bell-shaped glasses are sold all over the country in antique shops. The World of Coke museum in Atlanta displays an entire exhibit detailing the history of the company's advertising, and at the end of the tour visitors are funneled into the gift shop, where they can buy Coca-Cola branded merchandise like t-shirts, keychains and magnets.

1904 saw the world's first trade association for the industry formed by a group of twelve manufacturers. Now known as the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), the organization represents 22,000 promotional items distributors and 4,800 manufacturers. Schools, large corporations, small business, individuals, non-profits, and every other entity imaginable buy promotional merchandise every year to help establish their brand identity, spread awareness for their cause, or create a sense of loyalty and unity around a simple logo.