The year was 1789. The United States had just elected its first president, and a commemorative button was created to mark the event. Highly sought after by collectors today, this George Washington button was the first known promotional product in U.S. political history.
For the next hundred years or so, that was about it in terms of U.S. politics and promotional merchandise.
The presidential election of 1896 was notable for being the first to feature mass-produced campaign buttons, thanks to a patent that made this possible. (Even today, buttons from the McKinley-Bryan race are not that uncommon.) Other items became commonplace in the 20th century: bumper stickers, mugs, plates, etc. But it wasn’t until the 2008 presidential campaign that the use of promotional products reached a new level of sophistication. The success of Barack Obama’s online store not only provided increased candidate recognition and a significant revenue stream. It also allowed the campaign to gain valuable insights into the profiles and habits of its supporters (in addition to contact information for future donation requests).
Today, having an online store is pretty much mandatory for presidential candidates: