Cast in Bondage- page 2 | History | Smithsonian

Cast in Bondage

Copper neck tags evoke the experience of American slaves hired out as part-time laborers

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(Continued from page 1)

Badges were made of copper alloy, cut or pressed from a mold, or occasionally fashioned by hand into various sizes and shapes, most typically squares or diamonds, ranging in size from about 1.5 square inches to 3 square inches. Each was punctured with a hole and was probably worn around the neck on a string or chain.

In addition to the three slave hire badges owned by the Smithsonian, another 100 or so, dating from 1800 to 1864, are in various museums around the country, and another few hundred are believed to be in the hands of private collectors. Prices for badges have soared in recent years, in part because of a burgeoning interest in African-American memorabilia. Recently, a huckster’s (fruit vendor’s) badge, dated 1803, fetched $26,450 at auction in Baltimore, Maryland.

Their power far transcends monetary value. "Imagine," Michael Hodder says, "this badge as it hung around the neck of a man. Imagine how it felt against his chest, how it felt to present it whenever someone demanded. At the end of the day, did the slave hang up the badge in his hut or did the master keep it? What happened if a slave lost his badge? What happened at the end of the year? Was the badge returned to the city marshal’s office, turned in, taken to a local mill, melted and then reused?" The only certainty is the profound inhumanity—and likely brutality—evoked by such an artifact.

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