While taking photos of interesting artifacts at a recent Civil War show, a gentleman approached me with an item he wanted photographed. He opened his clinched fist to reveal a nondescript piece of metal that he proceeded to drop into the palm of my awaiting hand.
At first glance, the metal object seemed innocent enough. It was a piece of copper, folded, shaped as a diamond, with a deep woods patina of brown and green. If unfolded, it would have measured around 1.5 to 2 square inches. Again, very unassuming; that is, until I flipped it over, revealing the engraved words: “CHARLESTON. NECK. 1850. SERVANT,” followed by a hard to decipher number.
A city, a year, an occupation, and a number stamped into a thin piece of metal. A slave hire badge, otherwise known as a “slave tag,” likely hung from the neck of a slave in 1850. The tag tells us that the slave; a man or woman, was skilled and trusted enough to be rented-out by their master for short-term “servant” work. And as required by law, they had to wear the tag at all times.
Throughout the South, in both urban and rural areas, the hiring-out of slaves was common. However, the legal requirement to wear or carry a badge was inclusive to urban slave life, not rural. To regulate the practice of hiring-out slaves, several urban cities such as Savannah, New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston enacted badge laws. However, for reasons not fully understood, the only surviving badges are exclusively tied to Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston Slave Badges
From its inception in 1670, Charleston was a city that relied heavily on slave labor. No more than 20 years after its founding, Charleston had enacted a “ticketing” system that provided “proof” that slaves were permitted to leave their plantation. By 1764, slaves that were hired-out were required to wear a ticket or badge. And when Charleston was officially chartered in 1783, the slave badge system was one of the first statutes passed.
It wasn’t until 1800 when a new series of laws were passed and rigorously enforced that slave badges became more commonplace. As tax revenue, the issuance of slave badges became an important part of Charleston’s finances with badge prices varying by the profession and skill of the slave. Most occupations were servants and porters, while others specialized as fishermen (engraved FISHER) and fruit vendors.
Slave masters leveraged the system to maximize their profits while those who contracted the labor benefited from cheap, skilled labor. Ironically, slaves also took advantage of the for-hire system. They were exposed to educational opportunities and were permitted to move about in public more freely than was typically allowed on a plantation. For slaves that were able to collect a small portion of the for-hire fee, some were able to purchase their own freedom; and subsequently, the freedom of their family members.
However, not everyone viewed this practice in a positive light. Such cheap labor infuriated white laborers who viewed slave hires as unfair competition, undercutting their business. In response, Charleston passed a progression of tougher laws to regulate the practice throughout the mid 1800’s. However, tensions remained between the two groups of laborers.
Badges were made of copper and stamped from a mold. Shapes vary from round badges to squares and diamonds. Sizes varied from 1.5 square inches to 3 square inches. Badges had holes used for suspension (hung from a necklace) or sewing (sewed into a hat or garment).
The wearing of slave badges continued in Charleston throughout the Civil War, even as the city was under constant bombardment and eventually taken by federal troops in February 1865. Although 1864 was the last year Charleston slave badges were issued by the city, it wasn’t until 1866 that all slave-related laws were abolished.
Due to the scarcity and history associated with slave badges, prices for these artifacts have soared throughout the past few decades. Although there have been cases in which badges have sold for much more, an authentic slave badge typically sells for $2,000 to $3,500 at auction.
As demand and prices have grown, counterfeiters have followed suit, flooding the market with fakes. Rich Hartzog of exonumia.com offers a quality snapshot of the different categories of fakes making their rounds in the collector market today, along with explanations of what to look for in authentic Charleston slave badges.
It’s hard to express the emotions I experienced when holding that slave badge. I thought of the person that wore it. What went through their mind when someone asked them to show their badge? How did they feel when they were “hired;” being farmed out from one job to the next? I wondered what the circumstances or consequences were when the slave discarded or lost his or her badge.
No matter the questions asked, the prevailing feeling I had was sadness. Sadness for those who suffered through such bondage. Sadness in recognizing that such inhumanity and brutality is part of our history.
If you’re interested in learning more about Charleston slave badges, check out the book “Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina: 1783-1865.”