History of Promotional Products

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

Promotional products have an interesting history that can be traced all the way back to ancient Babylonia around 3,000 BC. The first instance of promos being used for branding was in 1886 when Jasper Meek promoted Cantwell Shoes with custom tote bags. Since then, these items have been used to promote everything from presidential campaigns to major companies like McDonald’s.

If you’ve ever been to a college fair or music festival and walked away with a tote bag full of fun freebies, you know all about the power of a good promo! Maybe you even received a free shirt from the t-shirt cannon at a baseball game. No matter where or when you receive these items, it’s always exciting to leave an event with something tangible in your hands.

Promotional products are one of the best ways to promote your brand. This marketing strategy has been a staple of trade shows and other promotional events for over 100 years. Sit back and relax as we dive into the full history of promotional products!

Hour Glass

Promotional Products Timeline:

Take a trip down memory lane and see the objects we’ve used in advertising over the years. From presidential buttons to high-tech gadgets, your logo can be printed on just about anything!

  • 1440

    Dentistry Source: lightsongraphics.com

    Johannes Gutenburg changed the way goods are produced with the printing press. Paper products were able to be produced by the hundreds leading to newspaper ads and eventually business cards.

  • 1789

    Button Source: idproductsource.com

    Promotional buttons came onto the scene to celebrate George Washington’s inauguration as the president of the newly-formed United States. From there, other politicians like Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley followed suit.

  • Mid-1880s

    Bookmark Source: victoriansilk.com

    Chromolithography, and the Victorian love of literature, led to a boom of vibrant bookmarks. These were made with ribbon or silk and were prized by royalty like Queen Elizabeth I.

  • 1852

    Corkscrew Source: pinterest.com

    Anheuser-Busch opened their doors and promoted their fine brew with promotional corkscrews like the one pictured here. Adolphus Busch is credited as pioneering the use of giveaways to promote a company’s brand.

  • Late 1800s

    Train Source: trains-worldexpresses.com

    Railroad companies in the 19th century stayed on track with their branding through promotional calendars. These were handed out to passengers and put on display in the ticket office.

  • 1886

    Meek Tote Bag Source: jhmusem.org

    Jasper Meek, the “Father of Promotional Products,” took branding to new levels with his burlap bags. These totes were used to promote a small business, Cantwell’s Shoes, in Coshocton, Ohio.

  • 1893

    Keychain Source: amazon.com

    One of the first souvenir keychains was used during the World Columbia Exposition in Chicago. Better known as the Chicago's World Fair, this event was responsible for introducing the world to the very first Ferris wheel.

  • Early 1900s

    Metal Tray Source: jhmuseum.org

    Customized metal trays became popular in Coshocton, Ohio, leading to a surge in popularity for the promotional products industry. Coca-Cola loved ordering these imprinted trays to advertise their business.

  • 1900s

    Crush Cap Source: collectorsweekly.com

    Plastic led to the emergence of many new products that were never on the market before. Screen-printing made it possible to customize plastic items with a company’s slogan or logo, like this Orange Crush disc from 1975.

  • 1906

    Bottle Opener Source: jhmusem.org

    Bottle openers came onto the scene and were often printed by early promotional products companies. The one pictured here was used to advertise Harvard Brewing Company in Lowell, Massachusetts.

  • 1937

    Football stress reliever Source: qualitylogoproducts.com

    Polyurethane was developed, allowing for even more customization options. This included custom stress balls, which eventually came in all shapes and sizes thanks to Francisco Indiro of Alpi International.

  • 1979

    Mcwrist Wallet Source: thisisinsider.com

    McDonald’s took branding to the next level by offering toys in their Happy Meals, such as the McWrist Wallet pictured here. These were used as cross-promotional materials for popular toy products, TV shows, and movies.

  • 1982

    Terrible Towel Source: wikipedia.org

    Rally towels became a popular item to use at sporting events. The very first logoed towel was called the Terrible Towel and was inspired by Vancouver Canucks coach Roger Neilson, who got angry over a call and waved a white towel at the referee.

  • 1990s

    T-shirt Source: rockshop.hardrock.com

    Promotional t-shirts were all the rage for everyone from cigarette companies to grocery stores. Hard Rock Café kept a stock of promotional tees on their shelves for each of their locations.

  • 1996

    Ikea Bag Source: cosmopolitan.com

    Swedish furniture store IKEA introduced their iconic oversized bag for shoppers. Due to their eco-friendly design, custom totes are also popular at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Target.

  • Early 2000s

    Van Dutch Hat Source: buzzfeed.com

    There was a time when celebrities like Justin Timberlake wore Von Dutch trucker hats. This fad was all the rage in the 2000s and is even making a comeback in fashion today.

  • 2004

    Live Strong Bracelet Source: theatlantic.com

    Nike introduced the rubber “Livestrong” bracelet, which became a symbol for cancer awareness and resulted in over 80 million sold in the country. The simple design has been replicated for other charities, community events, and social causes.

  • 2017

    Fidget Spinner Source: qualitylogoproducts.com

    Fidget spinners exploded across the country and came in all different colors and styles. In fact, the custom fidget spinner made the top 25 most popular promotional products of the year at Quality Logo Products®!

  • 2018

    Iridescent Promos Source: qualitylogoproducts.com

    Always staying with the latest trends, iridescent promos became available on the Quality Logo Products® website. Colorful and memorable, this visual treat takes regular water bottles and sunglasses to the next level.

Do As the Romans Do

Promos have been valuable since the beginning of time, even tracing all the way back to ancient civilizations. In fact, clay bricks and tablets were essential to the Babylonians around 3000 BC. Emperors would stamp their symbol or face into the clay, showing ownership of a building or territory. This allowed regular civilians to know whose rule they were under in a particular area.

Promoting a sovereign’s jurisdiction over certain lands became standard practice in other areas as well. In 312 AD, Constantine the Great of the late Roman empire declared a new Christian society by incorporating symbolism into the jewelry and coins. These coins were made by hand and engraved with complex designs. The goal was to spread awareness about the legalization of Christianity in Constantinople.

The Influence of the Industrial Revolution

Promos wouldn’t be where they are today without Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440. This overachiever even made his own ink by mixing linseed oil and soot, which was transferred from movable type to paper. The printing press allowed for mass-production of printed materials. For instance, calling cards served as a way to announce one’s arrival in Europe. These promotional materials were frontrunners for some of the earliest business cards. Eventually, they made their way overseas to America where trade cards became used for businesses, often including maps directing customers to the stores.

Source: activerain.com

Promoting the President

Promos were officially off and running as advertising essentials. The first promotional product ever used was not a pen, not a stress ball, but a simple button. Commemorative buttons were produced to celebrate George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the newly formed United States in 1789. According to the Busy Beaver Button Museum in Chicago, these buttons were used as souvenirs to celebrate his inauguration since there was no election being held at the time. You can say promo products came at the same time the Founding Fathers were building the country!

The Rise of Promos in the 1800s
Companies suddenly had the opportunity to market their services and products and stand out from the crowd! New promotional products came onto the scene in the 1800s, allowing companies to go beyond printed ads to gain new customers. Some of the most popular were:

Buttons: Abraham Lincoln was another president who used political buttons and brass ring pins to promote his campaign. Other politicians followed suit including William McKinley in 1896 and Wendell Willkie who lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

Bookmarks: Chromolithography, a printing process refined in the mid-1800s, allowed printers to reproduce illustrations in vibrant colors. Advertisers took advantage of this process, and of the Victorian world’s interest in reading, by producing full-color bookmarks as free giveaways to promote everything from insurance to publishing companies.

Corkscrews: Adolphus Busch, the beer brewer we know today as Anheuser-Busch, pioneered the use of promotional corkscrews in the 19th century. When the company’s salesmen went out to taverns to sell Busch’s products, he sent them with branded items to give customers. A corkscrew was one of the most popular items he offered.

Taking Care of Promo Business

Source: streamlinecorporate.com

Who is Jasper Meek?

Although business cards and buttons were widespread through the country, promotional products didn’t take off as an industry until 1886 in Coshocton, Ohio. Newspaper owner Jasper Meek kept his printing presses running during the slow season by imprinting bags to promote a local shoe store. Each burlap bag toted the message “Buy Cantwell’s Shoes” and children in the small town reused these bags to bring books to and from school. Other parents would see the custom tote and wonder how they could get one of their own, driving an insane amount of traffic to the small store. This kind of recognition benefited both Meek and Cantwell and showed the value of using promotional materials in business.

Source: jhmuseum.com

With the success of his bags, it didn’t take long before Meek branched out to include hundreds of items in his sale catalog. In the early 1900s, he sold his printing press and went full-time into promotional advertising, eventually opening the Meek Company (which later became the American Art Works). His company specialized in metal works, including customized trays for many businesses, including Coca-Cola. Customers loved these trays and would even reuse their promos in unique ways. For instance, some would attach a handle to the end of their Coca-Cola tray and use it as a dustpan. People in Coshocton couldn’t get enough of promotional products!

Source: jhmusem.org

Meek also changed the world of promotional advertising by offering stock images that could be ordered right out of his catalog. This was much cheaper than hiring a designer or artist to create an image or logo for a business. Much as Quality Logo Products® offers free artwork setup on your order, Meek didn’t charge anything for these stock images. The customer would simply choose the one they liked and his company would print their message right on the image. This was further enhanced by the invention of screen-printing in 1907, which made it easy to print a wide variety of images and messages.

Eventually Meek’s success started running short in the early 1900s. With union troubles and health problems, Meek retired early in about 1908. Still, his promo ideas spread like wildfire and went from a way to keep the printing presses busy to a full-blown industry! 

Did you know?

Jasper Meek tried to run for mayor of Coshocton, but was drastically defeated due to his extreme, radical ideas.

Who is Henry Beach?

Perhaps the biggest follower in Meek’s footsteps was another newspaper publisher named Henry Beach. In 1901, Meek and Beach merged their services together to become the Meek and Beach Company. The business lasted for about six months before Beach sold his half to Meek and went on to form his own company in New York. Being in a big city and outside of the small town of Coshocton, the promo industry really soared to new heights. Beach specialized in lithographing brand names on steel signs, serving trays, tobacco tins, and talcum powder cans. In fact, he was so successful in the Big Apple that Coshocton’s Board of Trade tried to convince him to come back. With the promise of a new factory and more exposure, Beach returned to his hometown in 1902. Over the course of time, Beach set up three plants, one that specialized in tin/steel, one for leather goods such as luggage tags and wallets, and one that made porcelain signs. Beach’s leather factory is still standing in Coshocton today! Ultimately, Beach’s trip to New York brought the industry across the country and left a trail for others to follow.

The Birthplace of Promotional Products
Coshocton, a beautiful town brimming with advertising history, pioneered the use of promotional products in the early 1900s. Following the success of Meek and Beach, many other companies created promo items of their very own. Fifteen years after Meek introduced the Cantwell burlap bag, Coshocton became home to 12 promotional product companies. Some came and went quickly, however a couple made a lasting impact in the community such as Marshall Manufacturing who created advertising thermometers and W.F. Smith who offered branded match holders.

Thermometer Source: jhmuseum.com

Overall, the promo industry boom in Coshocton did a lot for the economy. According to Greg Coffman of The Hourglass Calendar Company (one of the last original promo companies from Coshocton), 91% of all jobs in their town came from the promotional products industry. The town grew from around 3,000 people to well over 10,000, employing the most graphic artists from New York to Chicago. The most unique aspect of this industry boom was that competition among the businesses didn’t exist. All of the companies were willing to help each other out and lend a helping hand on big orders. If they needed paper or a product was out of stock, the other company was just down Main Street.

Bottom line, a $22.9 billion industry has a grassroots beginning, starting in a small town in the Midwest. Meek started a lucrative enterprise that has influenced the 30,000+ promo distributors currently in business. To this day, Coshocton remains proud of their history and influence in promotional products. In fact, the Johnson Humrickhouse Museum in Roscoe Village put together an entire exhibit dedicated to the historical promos created by these companies!

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An amazing amount of items came out of this town for advertising. Jasper Meek came up with the original idea and it kind of blossomed from that point. As long as these industries lasted here, the promo industry had such an effect on business.

– Joe Kreitzer, Curator at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton

Promos During the Industrial Revolution

Full Steam Ahead: Advertising Calendars
Meek significantly changed the game with his printing press, and this momentum remained throughout the 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution took shape, more people took to traveling across the country. This was a time before radio, television, and social media and many companies advertised with business cards, flyers, newspaper ads, and other paper products. During the late 1800s, railroad companies took advantage of color lithography by printing custom calendars. These promo products took paper advertising a step further by staying in someone’s home for at least a year. The companies hung them in ticket offices and gave them as free giveaways to passengers. Even today, custom calendars remain a powerful advertising tool. In fact, 76% of US consumers own a promotional calendar and prominently display them at home or the office.

Did you know?

By 1904, representatives from twelve promotional products companies gathered to form PPAI (Promotional Product Association International), which continues to lobby on behalf of the promo products industry.

The Evolution of Promotional Products

The printing press invented over 400 years earlier was a building block of the eventual boom in progress that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. Society was suddenly filled with Gutenbergs, all offering bigger scale inventions, as well as machinery powered by steam and coal. This updated technology made it easier to mass-produce custom items faster than ever before. As such, the world started embracing all kinds of promotional products beyond business cards, tote bags, and calendars.

During the early 1900s, plastic and screen-printing came onto the scene, changing the entire industry. This one-two punch led to even more promo possibilities such as: custom pens, promotional Frisbees, and personalized water bottles, to name a few. Plus, screen-printing helped usher in a new wave of branded giveaways: custom t-shirts!

From there, the industry continued to expand with the debut of other inventions and useful materials. Groundbreaking achievements like the upgraded sewing machine in 1930 changed the way items were produced. Then there was the invention of polyurethane in 1937, which became widespread during World War II as a replacement for rubber. This material eventually found its way to everyday objects like custom stress balls. Even today, the world is still coming up with new items to use in marketing. One of the most popular of 2017 was the fidget spinner, a simple toy that made waves across the country.

Do Promotional Products Work?

Promo Success Stories
Regardless of the industry, companies all over the world rely on promotional products to get the word out there. Take for instance Jet Marketing, a full-service agency for airline marketing located in Colorado. This dedicated crew uses promotional products as giveaways, as well as client and staff gifts. They’ve even gone as far as to combine their promos with other advertising strategies. In 2017, they sent out branded sunglasses and created a social media contest. The result was a high response rate, customer enthusiasm, and fantastic photos. However, promos go beyond just creating fun pics to post on social media. The right item can provide instant gratification and become an effective way to engage with customers. It’s one of the most interactive forms of advertising on the planet!

Quote Icon

A great promo will keep your brand top of mind for your clients and those around them. It’s that little something extra to show your appreciation and foster a sense of loyalty to your brand.

– Katie O’Hara, Project Manager at Jet Marketing

Stats About Promos

You don’t have to be a major company to find value in promotional products. No matter which promo you choose, they’re all guaranteed to boost your brand. These marketing materials are proven to be valuable in gaining new leads, making a memorable impression, and being well-loved by consumers. From trade show giveaways to company gifts, you can’t go wrong marketing with promotional products!

53% of consumers use a promotional product at least once a week.

82% of consumers have a more favorable impression of the brand that uses promotional products.

83% of consumers can recall an advertiser on a promotional product, while only 7% can recall one they saw on TV.

85% of consumers remember the advertiser worldwide.

The Bottom Line

Amazingly enough, promotional products are older than the car! Today, there are thousands of different promotional products for you to choose from, all thanks to the innovation that has forever been a part of society. No matter which promo you choose, this advertising channel is a proven way to get the impressions you need for your brand. Who knows what the future has in store for this exciting industry?

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a super cool Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. She’s a fan of diving into the history of some of the earliest promos on the planet. If you need her, you’ll find her buried in research, in the middle of a phone interview, or singing way off-tune in her office.

References

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