The History of Promotional Products

Promotional merchandise has long been a staple in many industries. Ever since promotional products first appeared, they’ve been used to boost brand awareness and popularity. Nowadays, running a business without using promotional products to their fullest potential is somewhat unimaginable. It’s limiting in terms of advertising, and it is downright risky, as businesses need their influence to prosper.

But what about their history? How did promotional products first come about? Were they always used for promotional purposes?

The history of promotional products is a wonderful tale, and it has inspired many to become a part of it. Even nowadays, “swag” and “merch” are some of the best promotional tools a company can use.

The commemorative buttons that inspired the creation of a new industry

Promotional products were never actually discovered. No one was particularly looking to create something that would inspire revenue growth in the future; at least not at that moment. Instead, this sort of merchandise first appeared during a presidential election in the USA. But not just any election – the very first quadrennial one.

Back in 1789, George Washington was an inspiring figure that would become the first president of the USA. Once he won the election, it was time for his inauguration. For that special occasion, commemorative buttons were ordered to celebrate the new president and leave something that would remind everyone of this historical event.

After that, promotional products became a real sensation. However, they still weren’t as popular as they were in the second part of the 19th century. For the most of the first half of the century, promotional merchandise consisted of almanacks, advertising calendars, and wooden specialities. But all of that changed when Jasper Meek came up with a fantastic idea.

Jasper Fremont Meek — a marketing genius

Promotional products as everyone knows them today first became popular in Ohio. Thanks to Jasper Meek, a passionate newsagent, the very first “modern” promotional product appeared — the promotional bag.

But how did a man who just ran a newspaper come up with such an idea? Well, he was actually inspired when he saw a child drop their books. In those days, bags were not really essential in every household. However, Meek saw some potential there.

Seeking to boost his revenue between printing newspaper editions, he came up with an idea that would leave a great mark on the history of promotional products. He talked to his friend, Mr Cantwell, who was the owner of a shoe store, and asked him if he would let him print out bags that would have an ad message on them.

Of course, his friend didn’t object to the idea, and soon enough, children were seen carrying these free burlap book bags, not really knowing that they had become walking billboards for Mr Cantwell’s store.

No competition — no problems

For a while there, Meek didn’t really have any competition. His business flourished fast, which made him a pioneer. However, weirdly enough, the history of promotional products embraced another creator — another newsagent from Ohio. His name was Henry D. Beach.

Since the two men were very different, it’s safe to say that they were rivals. Nevertheless, their rivalry helped promotional products to become even more popular. They both wanted to print promotional messages on everything and anything. Thus, they became some of the most important people when it comes to the history of promotional merchandise.

Branching out

Henry D. Beach was the first one to print metal signs and promotional metal trays, which were used by brands such as Coca-Cola. Today, these items are collectables.

However, two other men made history when it comes to promotional merchandise. Their names were Thomas D. Murphy and Edward Burke Osborne, and they were — of course — newspaper owners.

It might seem strange that only newspaper owners were able to produce such products back in the day. But, if one thinks about it, it is logical. These newsagents needed to turn their printing services into profit even when they weren’t printing newspapers. Therefore, they didn’t let their presses get cold from not using them.

Instead, they created a whole new industry. And, when it comes to Thomas Murphy and Edward Osborne, they are the creators of the art calendar. By placing an advertisement around a watercolour painting, these men opened the doors to a whole new range of products — and to new opportunities.

The PPAI

Promotional Products Association International first came about in 1904, when 12 manufacturers decided to unite and form an organisation that will protect their needs and solve issues regarding this industry.

The Association acquired even more members by 1906 and soon enough, it started using trade shows as a way to exhibit many types of promotional products and to promote the manufacturers as well. Today, the Association is still in charge of this industry in the USA.

Promotional products in the UK

Unfortunately, the UK jumped on the bandwagon in the 1950s, many decades after Meek, Murphy, Beach, and Osborne changed the way the world advertises. However, despite the late start, the promotional products industry is still booming in the UK.

Many companies, as well as organisations, are keeping up with marketing trends. They are using promotional products to their advantage almost every day. What’s more, the industry grew so much in the UK that it led to the founding of the British Promotional Merchandise Association (BPMA) back in 1965.


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Final thoughts

Promotional merchandise, swag, promo items, merch — all these words are just synonyms for an industry that has given so much already, and an industry that keeps on giving every day. Marketing and advertising changed that day when George Washington became president. Afterwards, those changes led to something incredible and downright useful to businesses and customers alike.

It’s safe to say that the world changed with the appearance of promotional products. What’s more, given the fact that the industry is worth billions of dollars today, the benefits will keep on coming for a very long time.