By Heritage Auctions….

Slave BadgeHeritage Auctions’ May 18 Americana & Political Auction, to be held at our Dallas headquarters, will feature the important Isaac Rudman Collection of Slave Hire Badges and Anti-Slavery Medals. Numismatists may will be familiar with the selection of medals and tokens included in this collection, but the slave hire badges, or “slave tags” are less familiar, and a fascinating reflection of this unfortunate chapter in US history.

The Slave Hire Badges of Charleston, South Carolina

By Michael Riley….

Slavery is one of the darkest realities of America’s past; a subject not often comfortably or openly discussed; a subject many would like to forever blot from our collective memory. The slavery system flourished in most southern cities during the nineteenth century but, in general, less than one-third of southern white families owned slaves. Many of the others would hire slave labor on an “as-needed” basis from nearby slaveholders. This custom could prove very profitable for the master, especially if his slaves had special skills that were in demand. Various cities had laws on the books regulating this practice but Charleston, through which more slaves were imported than any other city, has the distinction of being the only city with a slave hire system accompanied by the issuance of what are often called “slave tags.”

Slave BadgeTheir system allowed a slaveholder to pay a license fee, good for one year at a time, on a sliding scale based on the occupation. In return, he would receive a copper tag or badge for each slave licensed. The master was then allowed to hire that slave out to private individuals, businesses, or even the municipal government with the proviso that the slave would wear the badge at all times when on one of these hire out jobs and that the slave could only perform the function he was licensed to perform. Who benefited from this? The city made thousands of dollars a year in badge fees; the slaveholders made extra money for hiring out slaves that they had no work for at the time; the slaves themselves were often allowed to keep part of their outside wages plus they were given a certain amount of freedom in exchange for their skills.

What were the occupations that are found on these badges? “Servant” is the most common with maybe 60% of the surviving badges bearing that designation. The next most common is “Porter” at roughly 20% of the extant examples. These were considered unskilled or semi-skilled trades and the licensing fees were much lower than the rest. The most “common” of the skilled occupations is “Mechanic” which accounts for about 10% of known badges. The rarest are “Fruiterer”, “Carpenter”, and “Fisher.” Others are thought to have been issued but no confirmed examples survive.

Slave BadgeSlave-related memorabilia is a large and popular area of collecting interest. It’s interesting to note that these Charleston slave hire badges are really the only things a collector can obtain that can absolutely be guaranteed to have been owned and worn by a slave. The year it was used, the occupation and the location of the slave wearing it can easily be determined. The selection of authentic slave hire badges in this auction is extensive and includes rare occupations. Truly an historic offering!


Want more information? Check out the auction’s event page.