Wearing your allegiance

Badge-wearing has long been a prominent and popular way of proclaiming belief, politics and protest. Tristan Davies visits the new British Museum exhibition of badges and medals to find out what we can learn about past attitudes from these tokens

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This article was first published in the August 2004 issue of BBC History Magazine

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‘Stop the War’; ‘Free Kuwait’; ‘Coal Not Dole’; ‘Impeach the (expletive deleted)’; ‘I’m Backing Britain’: they may be slogans on tinny little badges, but they still have the power to take us back through the decades in an instant. One only has to see a red smiley face on a yellow background with the words ‘Atomkraft? Nej tak’, and suddenly it’s 1984 again and we all remember the Danish for ‘Nuclear power? No thanks.’

Old badges offer much more than mere nostalgia, however. Their simple slogans give a snapshot of the ideas and issues that once inspired or enraged the man and woman in the street; a tangible and very real glimpse into the social, political and religious issues in world history and the minds of those who lived through them. And while badges provide valuable evidence for trends of popular feeling, medals offer an actual indicator of past events.

Exhibition curator Amanda Gregory says: ‘Badges are much more “street”: what people are concerned about at the time. Commemorative medals are often referred to as history in solid fact. Every time a war is won or a bridge is built, you produce a medal with a date.’

Thus, a coin dating from the reign of Edward the Confessor, with a cross on one side and a crude pin on Edward’s side, would have been worn by an early Saxon convert to Christianity, proclaiming his new religion. A thin brass medalette from the English Civil War period expressed loyalty to  Oliver Cromwell, a bold and potentially dangerous declaration of allegiance by the wearer; while a later silver-gilt badge of 1660 showed support for Charles II and the restoration of the monarchy. A splendid 1912 Hunger Strike Medal – complete with trademark green, white and purple ribbon – issued by the Women’s Social and Political Union to honour hunger strikers in Holloway jail, demonstrates the passion the suffragettes felt for their cause; but the other side was just as willing to display their strong beliefs, as shown by a contrasting badge that was put out by the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

Some badges open a door to history’s lesser known by-ways. Take, for example, the silver and enamel badge made in China around 1900. It bears the words (in Chinese) ‘Heavenly Foot Society’, but it’s not a sales pitch from a Beijing shoemaker. The badge was produced by one of the burgeoning number of groups then campaigning against female foot-binding.

‘The first unbound foot association was founded in Canton in 1894,’ says Gregory. ‘It had 10,000 followers.’ Or there’s the curious Beggar’s Badge from Aberdeen, made of pewter and distributed to local vagrants in the city during the late 18th century. ‘I think it was a way of registering and controlling them,’ she says.

Pioneered by pilgrims

Though the exhibition focuses on political and social trends of the 20th century, Philip Attwood, a curator in the museum’s department of coins and medals, and author of the exhibition’s accompanying book Badges, says badge-wearing as we understand it was first popularised by medieval European pilgrims, who wore inscribed lead or pewter images of saints such as John the Baptist. ‘They were made in huge numbers and survive in large numbers too. They were made by private entrepreneurs and occasionally could be produced by a religious institution and sold to pilgrims to raise funds.’

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Suffragette Lady Constance Lytton wearing a prison number badge and hunger strike medal, c1912. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Cheap to make, they were sold on the pile-’em-high principle and did brisk trade at the shrines. In 1492, says Attwood, it has been recorded that around 130,000 lead badges were sold at the shrine of St Mary at Altötting, Bavaria. In 1466, the same number went (for two pfennigs each) at the shrine of Santa Maria in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, in just 14 days.

Not that the badges were mere souvenirs. ‘There’s a much more serious side to it,’ says Attwood. ‘These badges were believed to have sacred powers and to help overcome ill fortune or illness. They were thought to have a protective, talismanic effect.’ If only the same could be said of those ‘Nuclear Power? No thanks’ badges. Tristan Davies

Exhibition: Status Symbols: Identify and Belief on Modern Badges is at the British Museum from 22 July to 16 January 2005. Some exhibits can be seen online at www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

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Book: Badges by Philip Attwood is available from The British Museum Press, £7.99.