The Surprisingly American History of Promotional Products

Wooden blocks reading “made in the USA”

Promotional products are everywhere! We’ve all seen them: a water bottle with the iconic Nike Swoosh, a deck of cards displaying the Wells Fargo logo, and maybe even a pen bearing the Walmart name on the barrel.

Branded bags, gadgets, hats, clothing, and a plethora of other items have been gaining popularity in recent years as brands recognize the effectiveness of promotional swag. But how did promotional products become such an integral part of American culture? Today, we’re looking at the history of promotional products and their evolution into an industry that boasts a billion-dollar sales revenue each year.

The Founders of Promotional Products

Believe it or not, George Washington was actually responsible for the first promotional product all the way back in 1789. During his election campaign, commemorative buttons were used, much like they are today. This led to a variety of other promotional items, like rulers, calendars, and almanacs.

While President Washington may have been the first, Ohio newspaperman Jasper Freemont Meek is considered the “father of promotional products.” In the late 1800s, Meek was looking for ways to keep his business afloat when he witnessed a schoolboy drop his books into a mud puddle.

Inspiration struck, and Meek convinced the Cantwell Shoe brand to purchase advertising space for their logo on burlap schoolbags, which were printed by Meek’s newspaper company. This marked the first time a company specialized in the creation of promotional products for another entity, and it didn’t take long for others to catch on.

Major Players in the History of Promotional Products

Known today as the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), the Advertising Manufacturers Association was founded in 1904 by representatives of 12 promotional product manufacturers. By 1906, they had 56 members focused on addressing pricing issues, operating procedures, and business losses.

Promotional product tradeshows started in 1914 and continue today, with the PPAI Expo held yearly in Las Vegas. This even pulls in over 11,000 attendees and over 4,000 distributor companies.

PPAI’s major competition includes the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI), which was founded by Joseph Segal. When he was 13, Segal started his first business, a small printing venture in his hometown of Philadelphia. This ignited interest in print advertising, which led to the eventual establishment of the ASI in 1950. As he aged, Segal became known as an American entrepreneur and founder of over 20 companies, but he is most recognized for creating QVC, a free-to-air TV network and the first ever shopping channel.

Promotional Products in America Today

Today, the promotional product industry lives on through Facetime Business Resources and other promotional product companies. At Facetime, we’re proud to be part of an industry with such a rich and storied history, and we’re even more proud to continue serving people with high-quality promotional items. Shop the Facetime Business Resources store online, or visit our blog for more articles.

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