Scanning Around With Gene: Oh Yeah? Then Show Me Your Badge.
Aside from the cheap disposal variety handed out at trade shows and conferences, I've never had a job that required a badge to prove authority or status. After a youthful tour of the Olympia Brewery in Tumwater, Washington, I was presented with a metal "Honorary Citizen of Tumwater" badge, and I once held membership in the Aunt Jemima Pancake Club, complete with metal badge proclaiming: "Pancake Days are here again!"
But despite presenting these several times at birthday parties and Cub Scout meetings, I was never able to generate the awe and quivering respect that comes from a real badge, the sort worn by dusty frontier lawmen and flashed by inquisitive detectives hot on the murder trail. No, there's nothing like a badge to sober up the mood or to use when commandeering a vehicle for that high-speed chase across San Francisco.
Figures 1 and 2. My experience with badges (above) would have been wider if I'd only lived a few decades earlier. My simple press-card from high school may have been a little more elaborate, as these four (below) press badges show. The simple Oakland Press Pass badge (upper left) cost $1.50 from the Ed Jones and Company in Oakland, but the more elaborate version given out by the Chief of Police (lower right) went up to $2.50. The other two badges are examples from the 1948 catalog of Meyer and Wenthe of Chicago, Illinois.
Law-enforcement officials still carry badges, but the era of the badge is clearly over. Gone are the badges worn by newspaper boys, waiters and bus drivers, or carried by society reporters, hotel detectives, and even theater ushers. At one time a badge seemed to come with every job where public safety or service was even slightly involved. If you wore a uniform to work, there was a decent chance you also carried a badge.
Figures 3 and 4. Yes, it's really true that many hotels had house detectives, complete with badges, as shown above. (The Del Monte Hotel in Monterey is now the Naval Post Graduate School, so badges still patrol the halls.) And at a finer hotel, even the bellboys had their own badges. I'm not sure what the "Pleasure Club" is (below) but the president of that esteemed organization apparently merited a badge, as did playground instructors, opera-house ushers, and even Detroit news agents. All samples are from badge catalogs of the 1930s and '40s.
I'm not sure if the badge made the man, or the man made the badge, but I do know that only the good guys had badges. And the bad guys feared them. So I suppose even if your badge simply designated you as "Waiter No. 22" at the Brown Derby Restaurant, you could fall asleep feeling slightly more important than the poor schmoe down the street at Chasens who worked sans badge.
Figure 5. I would have never guessed that running a photo-processing lab merited a badge (bottom right) but there it was in the Meyer and Wenthe 1948 catalog (along with that of the finger-print expert). The elevator operator badge is from the Ed Jones Company in Oakland, and the Brown Derby Café waiter badge from the Mar-King Company of Los Angeles (who also made badges for the Los Angeles Police Department).
Sometimes Simple. Sometimes Ornate. Always Proud.
There's no clear definition of what constitutes a badge. Various heraldic devices and weaponry could be said to be badges, at least in the context we think of a badge today. But most badge collectors point to mid-1800s England as the birthplace of the "modern" law-enforcement badge.
In the United States, the first law-enforcement badges were issued in 1845 in both New York and Philadelphia. The New York badge was an eight-pointed copper star (representing the first eight paid security "watchers" from the Dutch Era of the City, 1610 to 1664), and the Philadelphia version was oval and made from brass.
Figures 6 and 7. Star-shaped badges were the pioneer design of American badge history, and many sheriffs' departments (above) adopted a six-point star badge. Even as departments moved to less pointed (and presumably less painful) badge designs, they often incorporated a star motif. A typical badge like these cost $3 to $5 in 1955, unless made of more precious metals. The movie the Tin Star (below) is a 1957 Anthony Mann western starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. Indeed, "tin stars" were badges often crafted by hand from the bottoms of old tin cans, which may have been the only available resource. As with all badges, it's not the metal content but the symbol that counts.
Soon badges (and police departments) began appearing around the country. In the Old West, badges were often self-made by sheriffs and marshals from carved-out Mexican coins, as in the case of the Texas Rangers. Some badge collectors attribute the word "cop" to the word "copper" used in early badge designs. But according to Stuart Berg Flexner's excellent book I Hear America Talking, the term more likely comes from the Latin capere, to catch.
Figures 8 and 9. There's no set shape for certain types of badges. These examples, produced by the C. H. Hanson Company of Chicago and the Everson-Ross Company of New York, show that each law-enforcement department was free to choose its own shape and style. A very common design element, however, is the American eagle, which is incorporated in the majority of non-star badge designs.
A Badge for Everyone
Soon it wasn't just law enforcement that was using badges as a means of identification. Bellhops began sporting badges, as did train conductors, bus drivers, building inspectors, elevator operators, and all sorts of municipal and governmental employees. Often accompanied by special metal hat bands or "shields," metal badges became an important part of many uniforms. If you were really important, your badge might display your name. But most badges referred to the wearer by number.
Figure 10. Even the Night-Shift Patrolman at the Copper Queen Smelter carried a badge, as did the plant police at a number of America's industrial production facilities. And of course, all the major studios, which liked to think of themselves as "small cities," had their own police forces, complete with badges. These examples are from the Mar-King and C. H. Hanson Companies.
Badge manufacturers sprung up in most larger cities. As with any graphic service, the resulting products were a mix of technology and art types. Some simple badges were stamped out of cheap metal in a generic fashion. Others were hand-engraved in the manner of fine jewelry and made of precious metals and even gemstones. From the rusted bottoms of tin cans to the highly embellished filigree of solid gold, the badge became a symbol of authority and pride.
Figure 11. Badge production took place in many large cities, and was usually part of companies that manufactured other "marking" devices, such as metal traffic signs, rubber stamps, key fobs, dog tags, and other such things. Here, from a 1928 catalog, are two views of the engraving departments of the A.D. Joslin Manufacturing Company in Manistee, Michigan.
Even today in the era of retinal scans and facial-recognition software, we're often willing to accept a metal badge as the ultimate form of identification. For anyone with rank and authority, the badge is a source of empowerment.
Figures 12 and 13. Badge producers, like the Ed Jones Company (still in business in Berkeley, California), often also sold police items, such as hand-cuffs, guns, whistles, and buttons (above). While some badge work was engraved by hand, machine engraving (below) was more common for the vast majority of badge designs.
Like fraternal rings, badges not only define the position and rank, but also the bond between those who wear them. Ceremonial badges are presented to retiring officers, politicians, and benefactors. Receiving an honorary badge is like getting an honorary degree.
Figure 14. Ceremonial, jewel-encrusted badges are still popular as retirement gifts and honorary positions. Here are several examples from the Mar-King Company of Los Angeles of solid gold-filled presentation badges, handmade and with a highly polished back for inscription engraving. Depending on the budget of the giver, these badges could include diamonds and other precious stones.
Law enforcement officers to this day uphold a tradition of placing a strip of black tape over their badges on the death of a fellow officer, and badges of slain officers are presented to survivors with the reverence of a military flag. Having to turn in your badge is the ultimate symbol of failure.
Figure 15 and 16. Two pages from badge manufacturing catalogs. The Meyer and Wenthe (above) catalog is from 1948, and the Ed Jones Company (below) from 1955. Both companies had been in business since well before the turn of the century. Meyer and Wenthe was acquired in the 1980s by the Everson-Ross Company (also badge makers) and Ed Jones is still independently owned and producing badges.
Go to the next page for more historical badges, and for Gene's take on what kinds of badges creative pros might carry. Bonus: Blank badges you can customize, and prizes for the best badges!
Mix 'n' Match Design Process
Most badges seem to have been designed by the engravers, on instruction from the municipality or department placing the order. There are common shapes and elements that, based on catalogs I have going back to 1919, engravers simply mixed and matched.
Figure 17 and 18. Many badges, particularly those for smaller organizations and non-law-enforcement, were made up of various stock components and images: the badge equivalent of clip art. The badge maker would start with a basic blank shape and then stamp various designs and lettering based on customer specifications. Most badges could be ordered in a variety of alloys and precious metals, depending on the intended use and budget.
Various agencies favored certain styles and shapes -- most sheriff departments still use a star design, though those can range from five to eight points. The U.S. Marshal Service favored a crest-like shield. Railroads had their own unique look.
Figure 19 and 20. The United States Marshals (top) favored a shield-type design, produced by the Ed Jones Company, which used a more circular design for its own badge (bottom).
Most recently, the oval-shaped shield has become popular, thanks in part to use by the Los Angeles Police Department and often seen in television and movies. Some people use the term "shield" interchangeably with "badge," but a shield is really a particular shape of badge.
Figure 21 and 22. The radiating-sun ray design of the Los Angeles Police Department (above) became very popular after its use from 1923 to 1940. The cap-badge version (below) used the California state bear instead of an eagle. Below that example are two similar designs from other police departments. The current LAPD badge, made famous during the opening credits of Dragnet, was adopted in 1940 and features an image of the Los Angeles City Hall.
As far as I can tell, other than certain symbols used to denote rank, there are no hard-and-fast rules as to the shape or style of badges and what they convey. A five-star sheriff is no less powerful than an eight-star one, and some departments seem to change back and forth at the whim of the sheriff in charge. In recent years some departments have moved away from five-point stars, as some gangs favor that symbol.
Figure 23 and 24. Fire department badges often use more traditional symbolism. Many departments, such as the Berkeley Fire Department (above, top right), feature a Maltese cross, long associated with fire fighting. The points of the cross represent gallantry, perseverance, loyalty, dexterity, explicitness, observation, tact, and sympathy. The arrangement and number of fire-hose nozzles (below) indicates rank.
Badges can be made from a variety of material, clearly dependent on the budget of the agency making the purchase. The finest badges are hand engraved using old-style techniques and either gold plated or gold filled. These days they also might include colored cloisonné made from melted colored glass.
Figure 25 and 26. The smaller badge shapes (above) were often used on caps or other accessories. Cap badges were popular for a variety of professions (below).
Badges can be made from nickel, brass, silver, gold, chromium, and various combinations thereof. More recently, badges have been embossed using heavy dies, auto-engraved by computer-controlled machines. Many of the companies making badges at the turn of the century are still in business today. Of course, what once cost a few dollars now runs between about $70 and $300, depending on the metals used and the work involved.
Figure 27. Not all badges use traditional images, as demonstrated by two of my favorites, the City of Santa Monica and the City of Riverside. I've been to Santa Monica, so I know there is an ocean there, but despite having been to Riverside, I don't have a clue what those two animals are.
While badges may be akin to jewelry, they also often serve as the basis for law-enforcement seals that are used on vehicles, buildings, and other official places. So the design of the badge is critical to the look of the entire department. That's why classic American images, such as stars, eagles, and wreaths are commonly incorporated into the designs.
Contest: A Badge for All Reasons
I don't think we'll see a day soon when newspaper delivery folks again carry badges, or waiters present their badge along with the daily specials. Law enforcement has established somewhat of a lock on badges. In most states in the U.S., it's illegal for citizens to own law-enforcement badges, and even the collector market is a bit nervous about some recent crackdowns. Clearly, any use of a badge (official or not) to imply authority you don't have is a no-no.
Figure 28. Everyone got in on the badge act at one time, even Junior. This page is from the C.H. Hanson catalog of 1955.
But I do wonder what a resurgence in the use of ornate badges to indicate job status might look like. Accordingly, I've designed several modern badges from the historical material in my library, specifically for the Creativepro.com audience. Perhaps next time you show up at a friend's house to fix a computer or design a logo, you can, along with your preference for Mac or Windows, present your badge.
If you don't find these insulting enough, you can pretend you're an Old West Sheriff and craft your own. Just download the file below, which contains JPEGs you can customize. Send your creations to email@example.com by January 28, 2008, and we'll give our top five favorites a $20 gift certificate to Amazon.com!