Historical Notes: Propaganda and protest on the lapel

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The Independent Culture
BADGES ARE in effect a form of poster with which the individual is empowered to give public vent to his or her otherwise privately held beliefs, preferences and allegiances. They comprise a particularly effective way of communicating messages when worn in densely populated urban environments - thrust under our nose in the Tube, or out on the terraces next to a lapel emblazoned like a billboard hoarding.

Badges can be traced back to the pilgrim badges of the Middle Ages, when they were worn both as a sign of devotion and as proof of having undertaken an actual pilgrimage. (Examples from a variety of places of pilgrimage can be seen in both the Museum of London and the British Museum.) However, it was with the emergence of emancipation during the 19th century that lapel badges really took off. Badges proclaiming the political and social aspirations of the electorate, such as slavery, land reform, improved working conditions and free trade began to be worn all over Britain.

This sartorial onslaught was further enhanced by the introduction of die-stamping in the 1840s. The creative possibilities of die-stamping designs into a metal base with the resulting recesses filled with richly coloured translucent enamels was limitless. Established jewellers such as Fattorini and Sons diversified and brought their design skills to bear on the new novelties with great success, encouraging others to follow suit. And the emerging trade union movement along with clubs, societies and charities swiftly recognised the propaganda potential of a distinctive badge pinned to a lapel. The following extract from one of Fattorini's trade catalogues underlines this psychology,

Every child likes to belong to a society and possess its badge. This is why Children's Corners in newspapers and weekly periodicals are so popular. One child has a badge and shows it to its playmate, who immediately wants one. If sent to subscribers or in return for coupons see how your circulation increases.

In the 1850s tintype photographs of American politicians inserted into a mount and worn as a badge were popular during rallies. However a patent taken out in 1896 by Whitehead & Hoag of Newark, New Jersey, described a celluloid-covered button badge that offered the first realistic prospect of including paper prints in the manufacture of a badge, a patent that formed the basis for today's mass-produced button badge. Tobacco manufacturers were swift to realise the sales potential in these new novelties. Several series of theatrical stars and sports personalities were issued in much the same way as cigarette cards had already been successfully marketed. They were an instant success and with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the Boer War following on shortly after "patriotic" badges were much in vogue.

The badge's potential to spread propaganda has often been tacitly acknowledged by the authorities. In 1918 members of the Asylum Workers' trade union were banned from wearing a union badge, a right they eventually gained after a lengthy strike. More recently a man was fined by Kilburn magistrates for displaying a badge deemed supportive of a banned organisation and some will recall the successfully brought case brought against the proprietors of Gay News in the 1980s by the moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse for depicting her on a button badge.

In our own times the ubiquitous lapel badge has played a remarkable, yet hitherto unregarded, role in opposition and protest movements throughout the world. The example of the widespread wearing of "Solidarity badges", inside and outside Poland, during the 1980s (almost becoming a fashion accessory) and, more recently, the Serbian "target" are but two examples. Yet the designers of these miniature, but potent, motifs capable of uniting opinions must often go unacknowledged.

Ken Sequin is the author of `The Graphic Art of the Enamel Badge' (Thames & Hudson, pounds 9.95)