A short history of promotional products.

They’re so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine they haven’t always existed, but it’s true – there was once a time before branded merchandise. Let’s take a short look into the history of promotional products.

The first ever promotional product was created way back in 1789 to honor the President George Washington. It came in the form of commemorative buttons made for his election. Contrary to popular belief, Washington wasn’t running unopposed, so perhaps it was these buttons that got him over the hump and avoided giving us first president George Clinton. (The former governor of New York, not to be confused the guy from Parliament Funkadelic. But that would’ve been funky).

After this, promotional items like calendars, almanacs and the like, slowly began to gain in popularity, until in 1886 Ohioan Jasper Meek founded the first promotional products company, providing branded burlap bags to local show stores.  These bags were reused by school children to carry their books, leading to great exposure.

By the early 20th century, a dozen promotional products companies had agreed to join forces, creating the PPAI, which at the time was known as the Advertising Manufacturers Association. By 1906 it had 56 members and things seemed to be looking up.

Then the depression hit. Like every business, promo products took a hit, but had fully rebounded by the late 40s. The 50s saw the birth of the Advertising Specialty Institute, or ASI, which became a centralized resource for connecting promotional products buyers and suppliers.

Whereas products had been limited in the early years, by the 1980s, suppliers were providing generic catalogs full of merchandise that could be branded with a company’s logo. But the business was still largely seasonal (peaking around the winter holidays) until the 1990s, when it became less appropriate to give Christmas-themed gifts in multicultural societies. Additionally, companies were becoming more inventive in their approach to promotions, and the results have been year-round promotional opportunities for enterprising companies.

Where will the future take us? Somewhere great, no doubt. Let’s find out together.

This article is part of a series titled Promo Buyer 101. This series is perfect for anyone who is just starting to buy promotional products for their organization, or is a veteran buyer but is looking for tips and ideas for branded merchandise needs. Check out the other articles in the series and be sure to share with your colleagues.