Lions trade pinsIt’s not the sun, surf, and swaying palm trees that Lion Bill Smith remembers most about attending his first Lions International Convention in Miami Beach in 1973, it’s the trading pins.

If you’ve ever been to a Lions event, you’ve probably seen one, two, or two hundred of them—tiny, colorful metal brooches sporting designs ranging from patriotic to whimsical, and all centered around Lions.

For decades Lions have used the pins as a kind of currency, trading them, collecting them, and displaying them proudly in their homes and on their Lions vests. True collectors are always on the hunt. But what exactly are they looking for when they go fishing for the pin of their dreams?

How it started

Lions trade pinsSmith, 92, a member of the Fairfax Lions Club in Fairfax, Virginia for 55 years, has been collecting and trading pins for more than five decades and is one of about 800 members of the Lions International Trading Pin Club, which was founded in 1973 at that very same convention in Miami.

The group began with fewer than 50 members from 11 states and districts and now claims members from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, most provinces of Canada and 18 other districts and multiple districts from around the world. Personal collections can number in the hundreds of thousands.

A little pin history

It all started in 1929, the first year Lions put out a 100% attendance pin, says Kent Clovis, immediate past president of the pin trading club.

Girls check out a pin booth at convention Trading pins as a hobby took off in the late 1950s and 1960s when Lions started exchanging them as a way of breaking the ice at conventions—a practice that continues today.

“Handing another Lion a pin that references where you come from is more personable than a business card,” says Clovis, a member of the Stroud Lions Club in Stroud, Oklahoma. “Even though we may not speak the same language, we can still make a connection by trading pins.”

“When you went to a convention back in the day, everybody would be walking around looking [at other Lions’] jackets and vests to see what pins were there,” adds Lana McCaulley, a member of the Mechanicsburg Lions Club in Mechanicsburg, Pa. and secretary of the International Pin Trading Club.

The earliest pins were made of materials that didn’t last, such as cardboard or leather, and thus are rare finds, highly sought after by today’s pin traders and collectors. “That’s what makes them valuable,” says Larry Shaull, a pin trader and member of the Stewartstown Lions Club in Stewartstown, Pa. Over the years, the materials evolved into plastic and then into aluminum and metal, which are used today.

Pin types

Pins can be made by individual Lions, clubs, state organizations, and districts.  It’s not known exactly how many pins are produced every year, but Smith estimates it’s in the “thousands upon thousands” range.

oregon Lions pinsAll 50 states and multiple districts within the U.S. and Canada produce at least one state or province pin each year to commemorate the site of the annual Lions Clubs International Convention.

In addition, almost every country or geographical area within Lions International issues pins.

But it doesn’t stop there. All of those individuals, clubs, and districts may also produce different series of “prestige pins” designed with a chosen theme.

Some past themes have been farming/gardening, with pins that might feature tractors, scarecrows, or pumpkins; a circus/carnival theme featuring a circus train, or a trapeze artist; or even a Wizard of Oz theme with Dorothy, the Tin Man, and more.

“Whatever topic you’re interested in, you can find it on a pin,” says Clovis.Thousands of Lions Club pins cover walls The seven-set Wizard of Oz pins, which includes Dorothy and her little dog, Toto, were produced by Lions in Kansas in 1983 and are among Clovis’s favorites.

Shaull, who works for a pin manufacturer, says the process of designing pins is simple. It starts with roughing out an idea and then sending it to a manufacturer who has an artist that creates a design.

While the process is fun, there are some pin design rules to follow. Number one rule? Keep it simple.

“You put a whole project on a pin and you lose peoples’ interest pretty fast,” Shaull says. “Keep it simple. Don’t try to write a book on a pin. You need something that is easily recognizable.”

Hauling them in

To keep traders abreast of what’s out there in the vast sea of Lions pins, the International Pin Trading Club produces an annual catalog of the latest designs that typically includes between 2,000 and 4,000 pins.

Lions look through pinsOnly pins that are at least five years old can be sold, but the annual catalog is helpful to traders looking to add to their collection; or just looking. “Some pins are so rare that I’ve never seen them,” says McCaulley. “But I know they exist because they’re in the catalog.”

“It’s amazing to see some of the designs of the pins and the creativity of the Lions who make them,” says Clovis. “Some are really intriguing.”

Annual pin trading swaps are a chance for pin traders to make trades, hunt for the ones they’re missing, and build camaraderie.

The sorts of pins that traders are interested in varies by person. Joseph Trezza, a pin trader and member of the Antioch Lions Club in Antioch, Calif., already has about 100,000 pins. “So, I try to limit my collecting to one pin per state per year,” he says. He displays pins that are rare or special to him in frames mounted on the walls of his home, and keeps others stored in boxes or on pads of foam. One of his prized pins is a 1982 Oregon state pin that features an O in either white or green encircling a meadowlark. While Trezza has both, the one with the white O is more rare because fewer of those were made.

Describing his pins, he jokes, “They are all over the place. My wife says ‘You have to get them out of here.’”

Smith, on the other hand, collects pins featuring the American flag. “I never in my wildest dreams would have thought there were so many Lions pins with the American flag on them,” he says. “I can go to a pin swap where there are a hundred people, and I will easily come home with 50 to 60 American flag pins.”

Smith has about 3,000 American flag pins, along with pins featuring Santa Clauses, lighthouses, and sailboats. He estimates his entire collection contains about 40,000 to 50,000 pins, which he keeps in 900 glass trays on custom-made racks.

Smith, who worked for the federal government and then as an antiques dealer before retiring, spends about six hours a day on scanning photos of his pins, marking off from a master list the ones he’s acquired, organizing them, putting them away and winnowing out the ones he wants to trade.

Trading them out

The trading process at a swap is simple. Traders lay out the pins that are up for grabs on tables for others to scour in search of those elusive pins they want to snag. One particularly coveted pin is known as the Colorado snowflake and was hand-made in 1972  of metal with points that were liable to break. “They were so delicate. They didn’t survive,” says Shaull about what makes that pin so desirable.

Another rare find is the Pennsylvania Keystone pin that was fashioned after the commonwealth’s nickname. It was made of plastic and last sold for US$800.

The first pin produced in Virginia sold at a swap in November 2022 for US$700. The pin, known as the ‘flat l’ was made in 1960. It features an outline of the commonwealth and a less elaborate Lions insignia than is used today.

While trading pins doesn’t have to cost the participants anything, the swaps often organize pin auctions to raise money for charitable causes. In June 2022, the International Trading Pin Club presented a check for US$70,000 to Lions International—funds that were earned over the previous two years at their auctions. Individual swaps may also include a service component, such as collecting canned goods for those in need.

A family affair

McCaulley started trading pins with her husband, Tim, in the 1970s. They even put an addition on their house to hold their pins and some other collectibles. Tim passed away in 2021, but McCaulley still has the pins. “The pins are conversation pieces,” she says. “When someone comes into your home, they want to know everything about pin trading.”

Trading pins was a family affair for the McCaulleys when their daughter, Erica McCaulley, was younger. On weekends they’d pack their pins and head off to a swap. When they first started they had enough pins to fill a fishing tackle box. Eventually, they could fill their whole car.

But it wasn’t really about the pins.

“We certainly didn’t have a lot of pins to start so it has always been the friendships we enjoyed,” she says.  Hunting and trading pins was also a way that Clovis connected with his grandson when he was younger. “It was a good thing for us to do together –before he discovered girls,” he says.

Clovis, who helps design between 12 and 25 pins a year, says it’s exhilarating to track down a pin he’s long been wanting, but the friendships among traders provide the greater thrill.

The white whale

After pursuing the hobby for many years, going to swaps “is like a family reunion,” says Clovis.

For Smith, it’s less about the pins themselves, and more about what they represent. “I remember the camaraderie and friendliness of the pin traders and their enthusiasm,” he says. “That’s what got me started. They gave me handfuls of pins and I was off and running.”

While trading is their focus at a swap, plenty of time is spent laughing over meals, playing cards, and just catching up with one another. In fact, traders say it’s the friendships that continues to spur their interest in trading pins. “I’ve often bragged that I can go to any state, call someone up in a pin club and have dinner or visit with them,” Smith says.

“Everybody has a story about a great trade or a great friendship they made,” McCaulley says.