Have you ever found an ugly wooden button, perhaps in a poke box, that has an eagle emblem and the letters "NRA" stamped on the back? Other manufactured goods -picture frames, candy boxes, bias tape packaging, cards of snaps - also feature the emblem and initials of the U.S. National Recovery Administration. Like NRA buttons, they have quite a story to tell.
During World War I, the American economy was booming. Farmers were encouraged to grow all the wheat they could, and the price of grain was high. American farmers fed not only Americans, but many people in Europe as well. U.S. farmers were plowing up great portions of the Great Plains. What had been prairie for thousands of years was now farmland. The rains came and the crops were plentiful.
After the war, soldiers returned and railroads brought trainloads of immigrants to the Great Plains. Prosperity reigned. Between 1924 and 1929, wheat acreage in the Texas Panhandle grew from 867,000 to 2.5 million acres. People put money into unregulated banks, which then loaned the money for land. The stock market was booming. In industrial areas, factory workers labored 12 to 15 hours each day for six days a week. Children as young as 8 years old were employed in this fashion.
Prosperity breeds distress
By the mid 1920s, Europe began supplying her own needs, resulting in great over-production of American wheat, corn and other farm products. Inevitably, farm prices fell. In the eastern U.S., factories lost contracts. The downward spiral had started. The American stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929 - "Black Tuesday"- losing 40 percent of its value over the next three weeks. By the early 1930s, two million Americans were living as nomads, having lost their homes and farms.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 by 22.8 million votes. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt called for financial reform, emergency relief to the unemployed, realignment of agriculture, and cooperation between labor, government, and management. These tenets were the basis of the U.S. National Industrial Recovery Act, which called for the creation of the National Recovery Administration, or NRA. The NRA would form consortiums of like industries to limit competition, raise prices and wages, guarantee the right of workers to organize, establish industry standards, a minimum wage, and limits for working hours. Unemployment would drop from 25 million to 10 million.
Blue eagle soars and falls
In the summer of 1933 the NRA adopted the blue eagle as its official symbol. Charles T. Coiner, a noted American advertising executive, designed the blue eagle. It was to be used on all material issued by companies meriting an NRA code of authority.
If you look closely at the brown NRA button pictured with this article, you can see the wheel in the right talon and the bolts of lightning in the left talon. The wheel is a symbol of industry; the lightning is a symbol of power. Parades were held in cities across the country to introduce the symbol and explain the benefits of the NRA for industry.
But big business mounted a legal challenge against the NRA, and in 1935, the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional. Within weeks, the blue eagle disappeared. The little NRA button was out of business, nearly as quickly as it had appeared.
Button history elusive
NRA buttons are representative of a short period of time, completed just 2½ years after the NRA began. They typically have a face embossed with a geometric or repeating pattern. One frequently found example features a stylized flower. As a button collector, I have not been able to learn the manufacturing location of the NRA buttons. In addition, I studied 138 of these buttons and found only 30 with at least a portion of a back mark. Of the buttons I studied, eight were painted: four were royal blue, two were green, and two were black. Two had dots of paint on the face (red and blue). Nine buttons had some metal embellishment, either white metal or brass. Twenty-two were sew-through buttons.
I even found three matching Scotty-dog NRA buttons. A look at the edge of each button confirmed they were wood, although the same design can be found in wood composition buttons. These dog buttons reflected the popularity of President Roosevelt's Scotty, called Falla. Did the two companies that made wood-composition buttons under the trade names Burwood and Syroco produce the wooden buttons for the NRA? I tend to think not, as the quality of the NRA buttons is quite poor in comparison with Burwood and Syroco buttons, and there is so little consistency in production methods exhibited in the buttons.
In spite of the brief life of the NRA, American society still benefits from many ideas developed as the result of its existence. The National Labor Relations Board was a direct result of the repeal of the NRA, as was the Bureau of Labor and Industry. The Bureau was established to oversee compliance with industrial safety standards, the 40-hour workweek, overtime controls, minimum wage enforcement, and restrictions on the employment of children. NRA buttons symbolize a period in U.S. history characterized by great hardship and significant progress in labor reform.