A Timeline Of The Evolution Of Promotional Merchandise

Promotional products are thought to be one of the oldest forms of advertising. Reports suggest that American businesses spend around $20 billion a year on promotional gifts items to promote their brand.

What makes custom gifts so popular all over the world? The popularity of promotional products can be linked to the culture of handing out gifts and its reciprocity. In every culture, people try to give back the gifts that they get.


The first known promotional products in the United States are the commemorative buttons of the election victory of George Washington in 1789. The historical legacy of these magnets also has made them favorite collectible items and personal gifts. Promotional items have not undergone any significant change since the early 20th century, except for the evolution of some innovative models like light up models.

With the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the invention of printing technology, more items like calendars, and rulers were also added on to the promotional gift list of marketers though it had still not evolved as an organized industry.

The evolution of the promotional gift industry

Jasper Meek, a printer in Coshocton, Ohio, is thought to have been the brain child of the promotional gift industry. He tied up with a local shoe store owner to print custom bags with the name of a local shoe store to be given away with every shoe purchase, which when kids used as book bags for school advertised the shop brand. Soon other business owners picked up this popular idea and started using imprinted gift items like calendars in their business promotions.

In 1904, 12 manufacturers of promotional items founded the first trade association for the industry, which is known now as the Promotional Products Association International or PPAI, which represents the over 22,000 distributors and 4,800 manufacturers of promotional gift items.

Can you guess the most popular custom gifts that were doing the rounds way back in the 19th century? It was not custom apparels or totes as in the contemporary era but something really interesting and unusual.

Here is a quick look at some of the popular gift items of the yore

Promotional items Then Now
Buttons In 1789, the first recognized promotional products were the commemorative buttons used to commemorate the election victory for George Washington in the presidential election. However, it was during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln political buttons were employed like we do today. Interestingly buttons were used not just in politics but also as bouquets. Button molds in the form of bouquets were created and exchanged during special occasions and events. Button magnets are being widely employed even in 2016 political campaigns, which show its popularity and timeless charm
Business cards In the US, business cards became widespread in the 1890s and the cards attained its present day popularity by the early 20th century. But now people have the smarter and sleeker options of business card magnets that won’t tear or get wet like their paper counterparts!
Advertising calendars Advertising calendars are thought to have existed since the mid 1800s. From wall calendars to table top calendars and wallet calendars, these essential items are available in a range of styles and sizes at present. With the advent of calendar magnets, these ever popular logo items have become smarter and well desired.
Bags In 1886, Jasper Meek, a printer in Coshocton, Ohio tied up with his friend, Mr. Cantwell of Cantwell Shoe, to increase customer turnover and sales figures by printing the name of his local shoe store on bags to be given away with every shoe purchase. When kids used these as book bags for school, the shop brand got advertised. Today, we have bags in various models and choices that range from the reusable cotton totes, to cooler bags, travel bags, wallets and laptop bags among many others that cater to the contemporary toting needs of people.
Rulers Wooden rulers were used for promotional purposes since the early 19th century. Custom rulers still reign the work desks of people as everyone need these to measure distances and draw straight lines. Rulers are used in geometry, engineering purposes, printing, technical drawing and more.
Corkscrews The Anheuser-Busch company, which was set up by a beer brewer produced many branded items during the 1880s and 1890s including corkscrews, and pocketknives. Their salesmen on their visit to the taverns handed out these gift items to popularize their brand. Corkscrews in various attractive models and multi tool combos are still in use as promotional items, barware and household items.

Promotional product industry has come a long way since its inception and at present there are over 25,000 different promotional products for marketers to choose from thanks to the legacy of promotional products in our civilization.

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