Slave badges served as the physical proof required to demonstrate the legal status of slaves hired out by their masters. Laws controlling such hiring began early, and badges or “tickets” were mentioned by 1751, with wearing them mandated by 1764. With its 1783 incorporation, Charleston immediately passed badge laws. Although other cities had similar laws, only Charleston badges have survived, suggesting that it may have been the only city to manufacture and sell them and to police their wearing. In 1800 laws became more uniform, and the earliest surviving badges known date from this year. By around 1806 badges were valid for a calendar year and were sold, at varying fees, in specific categories: mechanics, fruiterers (hucksters), fishers, porters, and servants. Most badges bore the geographic locator “Charleston.” All sported a category, a number, and a year. Surviving badges have holes for suspension since all slaves, except servants, had to wear them. Badges were made of copper of various shapes, depending on the design of the badge makers, who were appointed annually by the city council. Round, diamond, and square badges in differing sizes are known. Enforced until the end of slavery in 1865, badge laws required the keeping of records and the swearing of oaths by those purchasing them, and the laws stipulated punishments for failure to wear, produce, or buy badges. As many as one-quarter of Charleston’s slaves wore them in some years, and the income from badge sales added significantly to city coffers. By the end of the twentieth century, these throw-away items had become highly collectible, often selling for thousands of dollars.

Greene, Harlan, and Harry Hutchins, Jr. Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783–1865. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.

Singleton, Theresa. “The Slave Tag: An Artifact of Urban Slavery.” South Carolina Antiquities 16, nos. 1–2 (1984): 41–65.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Slave Badges
  • Author Harlan Greene
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/slave-badges/
  • Access Date September 16, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date August 1, 2016
  • Date of Last Update May 22, 2018