Each month there is a special South Carolina exonumic item that is highlighted as the Token or Medal of the Month. This month we will showcase one of the earliest and most valuable pieces of exonumia to have been issued within the state.
Many exonumia collectors are familiar with the Charleston Slave-For-Hire Badges. Commonly called "slave tags," they were issued annually from 1800 to 1865 by the city of Charleston in an attempt to regulate the practice of slaves being hired out by their masters. Only a knowledgeable few, however, are aware of their earlier "cousins," the City of Charleston Free Badges. This is not surprising due to the relative rarity of the latter. Surviving slave tags probably number between one and three thousand, with new ones coming out of the ground on a regular basis. But the number of known free badges can be counted on two hands and the discovery of a new specimen is a noteworthy event. The author hopes this webpage will serve as a clearinghouse of information on the little-known free badges as well as an ongoing census for the same.
The City of Charleston Free Badges, sometimes referred to as Free Black Tags or Freedmen's Badges, are thought to have been made in the last months of 1783 or early in 1784. In November of 1783, a city ordinance was passed which stated that "every free negro, mulatto, or mestizo, above the age of fifteen years, shall be obliged to obtain a badge from the Corporation of the City, for which badge every person shall pay into the City Treasury the sum of Five Shillings, and shall wear it suspended by a string or ribband, and exposed to view on his breast." The penalty for not adhering to the law was a fine of three pounds, and if not paid within 10 days the violator could be sentenced to the workhouse (jail) and hard labor for up to 30 days.
The same law which required free persons of color to obtain and wear the free badges also attempted to regulate the practice of hiring out slaves. It set up fees for "tickets or badges" for hired slaves, as well as fines for those owners hiring out unticketed slaves and those who employed them. No slave tags exist with dates earlier than 1800 and it is thought that perhaps paper tickets were used instead of the usual brass badges which were instituted later.
In 1789, the law requiring tickets for slave hiring and badges for free persons of color was abolished, and was not to be replaced until 11 years later (in 1800) with a new law governing only slave hiring practices. There was no mention of badges for free blacks in the 1800 ordinance, nor was there in any subsequent ordinances or regulations. Therefore, the time period in which free persons of color were required to wear badges lasted only six years, from November of 1783 until 1789. All existing free badges are undated and there was no wording in the 1783 ordinance calling for annual renewal, so apparently once the badges were issued, they were good "in perpetuity." These two facts - the short-lived nature of the ordinance calling for the badges themselves and the fact that they did not need to be renewed annually - may account for the relative rarity of the free badges. Additionally, there were less than 600 free blacks living in Charleston in 1790 (U.S. Census figures) and many of that number were undoubtedly children younger than 15 years of age.
There is no mention in the 1783 ordinance as to what entity was to manufacture the free badges and no evidence has turned up in any official source as to the identity of the manufacturer. It is possible that they were made by a local silversmith or goldsmith, as the later slave tags were. (Slave tags from the early 1800s often had the manufacturer's name on them.) However, the style of the free badges differs significantly from the later slave tags.
All known genuine free badges were die struck in relief on oval copper planchets (or in one case silver) by use of a single obverse die. A Phrygian cap (liberty cap) on a pole is the central device of the obverse, with the word "FREE" appearing on the lower edge of the cap. A banner or semi-circular cartouche appears just inside a denticulated border and runs from 2 o'clock to 10 o'clock, with the words "CITY OF CHARLESTON" running in a counter-clockwise direction. Script letters "No" with two periods below the "o" were hand-engraved onto each planchet immediately to the left of the pole. To the right of the pole were added serial numbers (or in one case a serial letter) in one of two manners. Four of the six known badges have hand-engraved serial numbers or letters, mostly done by a less-practiced hand than the engraving to the left of the pole. The remaining two badges have three-digit serial numbers that have been punched with single numeral punches. With the exception of the one silver badge, the crudeness of the serial numbers/letters suggests that they were added after striking by an agent or agents not in the employ of the original manufacturer. Four of the six known badges are holed at 12 o'clock. All six badges are uniface with a blank reverse, and several of the badges show a "pressure void" on the reverse opposite the cap which was created by the force of striking. The die used for the free badge was entirely hand-engraved. All devices and lettering show signs of hand-cutting, no letter punches were used to prepare the die.
Next will appear photographs (when possible) of all presently known free badges with descriptions and notes on each badge.
Physical parameters: Oval copper planchet, measuring 35mm x 42mm, weighing 14.89 grams, holed at 12 o'clock, hand-engraved serial number 33, pressure void on reverse.
Provenance: Sold for $2.10 in Lyman Low's Sale No. 8, June 10, 1885. For a time it resided in the Martin Jacobowitz collection. Donated to the American Numismatic Society by Elliot Smith in 1927 where it presently resides. Accession number 1928.25.5 To reach the ANS webpage describing their specimen, please click on this link: ANS.
Descriptive Notes: The ANS specimen exhibits somewhat grainy and pitted surfaces which may be indicative of its having spent some time in the ground. Overall grade is about fine.
Physical Parameters: Oval copper planchet, measuring 37mm x 42mm, weighing 11.14 grams, unholed, hand-engraved serial number 156, pressure void on reverse.
Provenance: Donated to the Charleston Museum by T. Grange Simons (of Charleston) in 1923 where it presently resides. Accession number 1923.319.1
Descriptive Notes: The Charleston Museum specimen exhibits a strong strike with slightly pitted surfaces somewhat hidden by lacquering. Surfaces are a dark chocolate brown in color, almost black. Some dirt remains in the lettering, suggesting some time spent in the ground. The planchet is somewhat thinner than other specimens, accounting for its lower weight. It is also approximately 1mm wider than other specimens, resulting in "longer" denticles on the right and left peripheries. Presence of a small diagonal die break (measuring 1mm in length) to the immediate left of the junction of the cap & pole. Another die break, larger and longer, starts between the R and E of FREE, and runs also to the second E. Hand-engraved serial number 156 is much cruder in style than No., suggesting they were engraved by different individuals. Reverse rim area shows evidence of trimming and filing. Accession number painted on lower half of reverse. Overall grade is extremely fine.
Physical Parameters: Oval copper planchet, measuring 37mm x 42mm, holed at 12 o'clock, hand-punched serial number 259.
Provenance: Reported to have been unearthed in Beaufort County, S.C. during the winter of 2005 by relic hunter Peter Eles. Sold by Eles to unknown California collector in the summer of 2005 for the sum of $15,000. Then appeared in Early American History Auction of February 11, 2006 as lot 351 with estimate of $25,000 to $50,000. Prices realized posted online showed closing bid of $25,000, but a phone call to the auction house seemed to suggest that the lot was "bought back" by the consignor. Webpage published by the "Treasure Depot" lists the tag as one of the top finds of 2005 -- To visit the webpage, please click on this link: Treasure Depot. A short article, as well as a photo of this tag, was also published in Vol. 31, No. 4 of North South Trader's Civil War, a magazine devoted to relic hunting.
Descriptive Notes: The Eles specimen exhibits corroded and encrusted surfaces consistent with its having spent many years in the ground. The specimen was reportedly "conserved" by relic restorer Robert McDaniel of Waterloo, Alabama prior to its appearance in the Early American History Auctions sale. Finder Pete Eles states that the badge was severely bent when he found it and that the restoration performed by McDaniel included straightening out the bend and "doctoring" the patina. The encrustations on the surface of the tag preclude any discussion of striking characteristics or obverse detail. Grade is about very good as to wear, but corrosion and encrustation lowers the overall grade substantially. Conditionwise, this is the poorest specimen of the six known.
Physical parameters: Oval silver planchet of unknown diameter and weight, holed at 12 o'clock, hand-engraved serial number 307.
Descriptive Notes: A color photograph of this badge is reproduced in a recently published book entitled Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783-1865. Permission was not granted to reproduce it on this webpage, so the author refers interested persons to plate B in the aforementioned reference. The photograph shows a badge which is silver and exhibits a somewhat weak strike in places. This could be accounted for by the difference in the hardness of the alloy. Presence of a small diagonal die break (measuring 1mm in length) to the immediate left of the junction of the cap & pole is also apparent in the photo. Another die break, larger and longer, starts between the R and E or FREE, and runs also to the second E. Hand-engraved serial number 307 matches the style of the No., so that they appear to have been engraved by the same individual. This differs from the other five free badges, and suggests that perhaps this silver badge was "special ordered" by its recipient directly from the manufacturer. Overall grade is very fine.
Physical parameters: Oval copper planchet, measuring 36mm x 42mm, unknown weight, unholed, hand-punched serial number 341 or 34I, pressure void on reverse.
Provenance: Appeared as lot 1237 in W. Elliot Woodward's sale #69, October 13-18, 1884. Purchased from that sale by T. Harrison Garrett. Subsequently donated to Johns Hopkins University. Consigned to Bowers & Ruddy Galleries by Johns Hopkins and appeared as lot 1993 in the sale of the Garrett Collection, Part 4, March 25-26, 1981. Hammer price in that sale was $4000. Present owner unknown.
Descriptive Notes: Presence of a small diagonal die break (measuring 1mm in length) to the immediate left of the junction of the cap & pole. Another die break, larger and longer, starts between the R and E or FREE, and runs also to the second E. Hand-punched serial number 341 or 34I undoubtedly placed at a different time than No., suggesting they were placed by different individuals. Overall condition is very fine to extremely fine.
Physical parameters: Oval copper planchet, measuring 36mm x 42mm, weighing 14.7 grams, holed at 12 o'clock, hand-engraved serial letter U, pressure void on reverse.
Provenance: Originally purchased with a group of family papers by a mid-western antique dealer from a second-hand shop in Weatherford, Texas in the 1990s. Sold to present owner (the author) in 2001 for an undisclosed sum.
Descriptive Notes: Presence of a small diagonal die break (measuring 1mm in length) to the immediate left of the junction of the cap & pole. Another die break, larger and longer, starts between the R and E or FREE, and runs also to the second E. These last two die breaks are on most other specimens, but this specimen shows at least six other die breaks, all emanating from the cap. The presence of all these die breaks suggests that the die used to make the free badges deteriorated rapidly. Hand-engraved serial letter U undoubtedly placed at a different time than No., suggesting they were placed by different individuals. Overall condition is very fine.
In February of 2012, relic hunter Hal McGirt uncovered the seventh known specimen. Found in the area of the slave quarters on an old plantation near Charleston, McGirt's badge was bent and heavily encrusted. He sent the piece to noted restorator Leonard Short of Christianburg, Virginia.
Physical parameters: Oval copper planchet, measuring 36mm x 41mm, weighing 11.11 grams, unholed, hand-engraved serial number 320, pressure void on reverse.
Provenance: Uncovered on a Charleston area plantation in February 2012. Restored by Leonard Short of Christianburg, Virginia in April and May of 2012. The piece is now in the hands of the plantation owner.
Descriptive Notes: Heavily restored specimen shows very dark surfaces, with oblong dent in the area of the upper cap. Restoration precludes study of die cracks that are seen on other specimens.
Commentary on the possible manufacturer: The actual manufacturer of the free badges is not known at the present time. He may have been a local silversmith or goldsmith or some other type of artisan metal worker, or the badges may have been ordered from outside the city. It is doubtful that they were ordered from Europe, as the die preparation would have been much more professionally rendered, with lettering that had been hand-punched from single letter punches rather than the hand-engraved lettering present on the badges. This crudeness in diework suggests that the badges were made locally, just like the later slave tags. The manufacturers of the slave tags are known to have been local metal workers. Ralph Atmar, Jr., who made the first known slave tags in 1800, was a goldsmith and engraver. Charles Prince, who made them in 1801 and for the remainder of the decade, was a tinworker. John J. Lafar, who made them in 1810 and continued for a period of 25 years, was a silversmith. These three manufacturers signed their work, however, with their counterstamped name on the badges that they made. Unfortunately, there is no such maker's mark on the free badges. But that doesn't preclude their being made in Charleston. Perhaps some future research will identify the maker.
As with any rare and valuable collectible, one must be on the lookout for replicas and fakes. Pictured above are two fake free badges. Both were offered for sale on the popular eBay auction site in the last couple of years. Undoubtedly others like them can be found at local flea markets and antique malls. All fake free badges observed to date are of incuse design - that is, the design has been cut into the metal. All real free badges are die struck in relief except for the serial numbers which have been hand-engraved or hand-punched into the metal. All remaining lettering and design on the real badges rises above the surface of the badge and is not cut into the metal. At the present time, this is one easy way to tell the real ones from the fakes, but with time, better fakes may appear and one may need to compare any potentially real badge carefully with one of the known real ones.
The author of this webpage invites any comments from the general public concerning free badges and would certainly like to hear from anyone who has a badge that they believe to be real.
Copyright 2006 by Tony Chibbaro.
Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783-1865 by Harlan Greene, Harry S. Hutchins, Jr. and Brian E. Hutchins, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004.
South Carolina Antiquities, Journal of the Archeological Society of South Carolina, Inc. Volume 16, 1984, Nos. 1&2.
The Garrett Collection Sales Sale 4, by Bowers & Ruddy Galleries, 1981.
If you collect or have a casual interest in South Carolina tokens or tokens issued by cotton mills, lumber companies, or other types of businesses, you may want to purchase my book, South Carolina Tokens and its three supplements. To read a description of these standard references, please click on this link: Books.
Token or Medal of the Month Main Page
A Short History of Token Use in South Carolina
South Carolina Trade Tokens for Sale - Page 1
South Carolina Trade Tokens for Sale - Page 2
Other South Carolina Exonumia for Sale
Trade Tokens from Other States for Sale
eBay Auction Listings
South Carolina Stereoviews
The Charleston Exposition
Links to Other Sites