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Badge.  A medallic item intended to be worn, often of heraldic shape and emblematic design, greater than one-inch diameter. (A similar item less than one-inch is an insignia or pin.) Badges always have some means of fastening to a garment (or headgear, called a cap badge); they are always characterized by a distinctive shape, often with openwork. Badges are usually made of hard-wearing composition, and sometimes containing contrasting lettering (as with enamel or fillin). They are sometimes made with a center emblem – also called badge center  – where a number of different badges can be made by combining center emblems with stock bases. They are most often uniface since the intent of a badge is to be worn giving instant recognition to the wearer, usually honoring or identifying a member of the group, or providing that instant recognition (as a policeman's or fireman's badge).

A badge (of the same definition) is also the pendant item hanging from a collar or chain (see collar, 1). While it is suspended from a collar it is somewhat optional to have a reverse design and it may or may not have a pin to secure it to a garment or uniform. These badges are almost always enameled.

Badges were also prevalent among societies, particularly for meetings and conventions. Popular around the beginning and throughout the 20th century, badge design became somewhat of an attempt at bosterism, touting the site of the meeting or

the locale of the wearer. Badges were designed with an increasing number and variety of elements, becoming more complex and ornate with elements in addition to the pendant medal.  See convention badge.


History of Badges.  The first badges were cloth, sewn on a garment or uniform. (These were also the forerunner of the cloth patch, which are now designed in color for most of the same governmental or military organizations, many of which have a metal badge as well. Police organizations have both, the cloth patch for identification, but the metal badge for authority.)

Badges of metal were first made in the 16th century. At first they were hand

engraved on metal cut to shape, often by jewelers. Later, their manufacture employed the

same technology as medal making, then becoming a sideline of medallic firms until the 20th century when firms specialized in badge manufacturing alone.

Badges were struck from engraved dies, trimmed to a distinctive shape, and affixed with pins and catches. Later they were fabricated of several parts (as center emblems), and electroplated to harden the surface.

Created for a wide number of organizations, both municipal and nonmunicipal – not just police and fire – badges of identification were also made for guards, detectives, rescue squads, court attendants, drivers, ushers, in addition to the usual city, county and federal officials (particularly for law enforcement where every sheriff had a star badge), even waiters and taxi drivers among other groups had badges over the years.

Fraternal societies used badges extensively, however the largest users, by far,

were Masonic organizations. Here badges were used for many purposes: membership, rank, conventions, promotions (elevations), visits, and longevity (honoring elderly members).Masonic badges developed into quite ornate shape, even in precious metals and affixed with jewels.

Composition of Badges. It was learned that hard composition was preferred to prolong the life of the badge because of the constant use, exposure to body acids and a variety of other environmental contaminants. Early badges were struck in bronze, replacing softer alloys. Later they were made in German-silver or nickel-silver for a harder internal alloy. Electroplating the badges – first with chromium, later with nickel or rhodium – added greatly to their wearing ability.

Ceremonial badges, or those for some high office, were made in precious metal, silver or even gold. However, even ceremonial badges were struck in base metal and plated in precious metals for a lower cost, or, in some cases, made of gold filled or rolled gold

Convention badges, which were worn for only a short time, did not need the harder alloy of a badge used for continuous wear. For the most part these were struck in bronze.

Shape of Badges.  The most important characteristic of a badge is its shape. It

must be easily recognized from a distance. Typical shapes for badges are star, shield, starburst or sunburst (see unusual shape). Only the least important (as, say, a waiter's or usher's badge) is round.

For those of star shape or with sharp pointed arms, badges are made – like decorations – with ball-tips to blunt the points. This is done to prohibit poking the garment it is attached to (or the person wearing it!).

Openwork is common in the design of badge shapes. A star within a circle, for

example, is formed with pierced openwork. Trimming and piercing are both important in the manufacture of badges, even though they may be used for different badges. Most shapes are considered as stock items with very few unique custom shapes.

Customizing Badges.  By the use of center emblems affixed to bases of

stock design a large number of badge designs can be created. The center emblems are often the seal of the municipality ordering the badge, or the type of official who will be wearing it, or a large number (or even a blank disk where the number could be inscribed).

Firemen's badges were created in an infinite variety. Center emblems were available at badge manufacturers for every rank of fireman with varying number of design elements – fire axes, trumpets, helmets, ladders, fire engines – or a combination or pastiche of this firefighting equipment superimposed on each other. The center emblem could be round, or even these could be in unusual shape.

The stock base to form the badge would most often be in heraldic shape. Often it

had a spread wing eagle above or other device around the reserve area in the center where the center emblem would be soldered in place.

A typical sequence of badge manufacture would include: both pieces typically struck in bronze, trimmed to shape, lettering applied by machine inscribing, soldering the center emblem on the obverse and the stem and catch on the back, electroplating the piece in nickel or rhodium, then enamel or monogram fill-in of the lettering, then a final lacquering.

Design and lettering.  Badge design ranged from the very simple – a few lines of

lettering on a star – to the ornate. Designers were far from medallic artists, however,

They took inspiration from heraldry, including such pictorial elements as the cartouche, scrollwork, wreaths, background texture, even the riband circlet.

To design and model a unique badge was almost unheard of. It was more often picking stock elements offered by the manufacturer. Thus customizing was accomplished by picking a center emblem from row A, and a stock base from type X. Originality was virtually nonexistent.

Lettering was also simplistic. Text was at a minimum, fit into the space available

in the cartouche in the stock design, almost always incised, very rarely in raised relief. Some important words may have been shaded for emphasis, but most were single lines, as if hand engraved in the simplest type style.

Suspension and ribbons.  Convention badge design developed with multiple

elements, encouraged the use of suspension. The header became more elaborate and often included a means of inserting a name card to identify the wearer. In addition to headers, other elements consisted of pendants, drops, back ribbons and other components. An ultimate design feature was the relic drop, as a sea shell, nut, or lump of coal, symbolic of a geographic region.

            Badge terms among Decorations. A BREAST BADGE is any badge worn on the breast but is also a separate medallic item without a suspension ribbon, called a star when in that shape. It is also the suspended medallic part of an ORDER, SASH or COLLAR A miniature badge of any kind, for wearing on civilian clothing, has the German name stecknadel.

               In one of the most bizarre situations in the entire medallic field, the term “badge” was used for “medal” in the United States by government branches, particularly the military, because the U.S. Congress had sole authority for the creation of medals. The military circumvented this by calling medals of their issue “badges.”

         Badge Characteristics         


  1) Quick Identification.             

  2) Intended to be worn (Fastener).   

  3) Distinctive Shape.                

  4) Denotes Authority.                

  5) Design (Devices).                 

  6) Lettering (Inscriptions).         

  7) Familiarity (Recognition).        

  8) Hardness (Wearability).           

  9) Symbolism.                        

            10) Bearer is Member of Group.      

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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