The History of Promotional Products



If you've ever been to a music festival or convention and walked away with a bag full of freebies, then you know that promotional products work! But did you know that those quirky logoed products have a long history? In fact, the history of promotional products goes back to the United States of America's birth as an independent nation.

Gather round as we look back at the history of promotional products - and what's in store for the future.

Beginnings in Politics and Press

One of the first well-known promotional products passed around the US was a commemorative button made for George Washington's presidential election in 1789. These presidential buttons were so popular that other promotional items like calendars, rulers, and almanacs became available for the adoring public as well.

As our country continued on its way, in the late 1800s, Jasper Meek came along. Meek is commonly credited as the "father of promotional products." He owned a newspaper and wanted a way to keep his presses running during slow times so he came up with the idea to start printing advertising messages on burlap bags, which a local shoe store gave to schoolchildren to promote their business. Children would carry the bags all over town as they walked to and from school, garnering publicity for the shoe store.

After the runaway success of his printed burlap bags, Meek went on to print promotional horse covers that were seen on all the horses in town and eventually opened his own promotional products company, the Tuscarora Advertising Company. The business was lucrative, and Meek attracted competitors in other newspapermen who saw what he was doing with his printing presses.

A New Industry is Born

In the early 1900s, a group of representatives from 12 promotional products manufacturers agreed to form an industry trade association to address issues such a pricing, new ideas, and business strategies. They also adopted bylaws and set standard operating procedures for the industry. This organization, originally known as the Advertising Manufacturer's Association, became the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), the industry's leading professional association that has become a fantastic resource for businesses like our own.

Plastic Revolution

Over the next hundred years, the promotional products industry grew into the over $23 billion industry that it is today, with innovations for all kinds of new promotional items. Around the same time as the formation of what would become PPAI, imprinted bottle openers came into vogue. In the late 1930s, polyurethane was developed, opening a whole new world of promo products, including stress balls and other small items.

80s-00s: Spike in Popularity

In the 80s and 90s, promotional items like toys in fast-food kids' meals, rally towels at sporting events, and logoed tees popularized the promotional product. In the early 2000s, everyone had embossed rubber bracelets, inspired by the iconic yellow Livestrong wristbands. And who can forget the fidget spinner mania of just a few years ago?

Today and Beyond

Today, promotional products continue to be used for organizations, politics, hobbyists, and much more. They have moved beyond mere marketing pieces, but into a core component of both brand and personal identity. With the spike of popularity in promotional products in the late 20th century, it's no longer enough to simply offer a name, logo, or message on an item. Consumers now look for products that provide use, align with their values, and provide social capital. 

Related Content: The Constellation Model: Understanding Customer Buying Behavior

Promotional products today are also integrated into employee recognition and customer reward programs - providing tangible results after meeting goals.

Promotional products have been around for hundreds of years, and they're sure to be around for hundreds more. With such a long and storied history behind them, we're excited to continue to bring you the future of promotional products, in whatever form that may be.

Related Content: 2024 Promotional Swag Trends

Customize Your Branded Merchandise with QRG

From choosing the right product(s), to getting your design and logos done correctly, to organizing drop-ship locations, the process of offering branded merchandise can be a hassle. 

Luckily, QRG specializes in these marketing solutions and will handle your next project from start to finish so there’s no worry involved.

We offer everything from promotional products to identity apparel and uniforms, printed materials, custom online stores, and much more. When deciding on your next branding adventure, let us help coordinate the selection, design, decoration, and production of your logo’d merchandise. Bring your brand to life with custom merchandise from QRG!


QRG is a customer-driven, single-source commercial printer, branded merchandise agency, and direct marketing firm tailored to meet your business goals. Our corporate identity solutions create deep connections with a lasting impact on your audience. Learn more about how it works.

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