Badges originated in the Middle Ages. They were distributed to mark events like a coronation or an accomplishment like a pilgrimage to a specific site. Such badges were especially popular in Great Britain. At this time, they were usually a type of jewelry made from metal or ceramic. By the end of the Middle Ages, the three major uses for what would become embroidered badges (called “patches” in the United States) were in place: rank, souvenirs, and group affiliation.
Medieval badges might also be distributed as part of the livery for a noble person’s retinue. This use was transferred to professional armies in the 17th century, as a way of identifying one’s fellow (or enemy) combatants on the field. They also came to denote rank.
In the 19th century, embroidered patches as a type of badge became popular in the United States. In the absence of reliably distinctive uniforms, as with the Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War, patches (such as on a uniform cap) increased in importance for identifying friend and foe. However, such patches were only used, as in the British Army, with officers to denote rank, and were relatively difficult and time-consuming to make. They also were not uniform in design.
Until 1869, embroidered badges were hand-made. That year saw the invention of the revolutionary Schiffli embroidery machine. With a two-thread system that required a hand crank and more than one user, it was not initially too much of an improvement in quality and speed over hand-embroidered badges, with one exception – it could produce many uniform badges in the same design. Even so, aside from military badges, embroidered badges did not enter their renaissance until after an upgraded, single-user version of the machine came out in 1898. In addition to uniformity, machine-made embroidered badges have another major difference in that they are now usually attached via an adhesive, where the badge is ironed on rather than sewn on.
The first group to take advantage of mass-produced badges was the Boy Scouts, founded in Britain in 1907. The Boy Scouts were a worldwide organization intended to help instill good values in their youthful members. An integral part of their program was to issue merit badges for learning different skills and engaging in certain activities. Souvenir badges, which originated in the early 20th century in Germany, also developed during this time for other groups and activities. These now mostly produced in Britain by Sampson Souvenirs Ltd., post-WWII. Their American counterpart is Voyager Emblems (founded 1967) in New York.
International groups and events spread this idea quickly, so it is no surprise that the mass use of embroidered badges in the British Army during WWI was a major milestone. The United States Armed Forces also began using patches in 1918, expanding their use quickly as they saw the positive effect on morale. Law enforcement organizations and fire departments quickly followed suit in the 1920s.
Embroidered badges truly blossomed in WWII, on both side of the Atlantic, helping to distinguish different divisions of the armed forces. Post-War badges, such as the “sweetheart patches” American military personnel sent home while stationed in Europe, continued this trend. Embroidered and metal badges have also since become almost ubiquitous among government and emergency services, as well as sports teams and corporations. In addition, independent groups of all kinds have adopted badges as a way of reinforcing group identity and upward movement, along the Boy Scouts model.
Today, in addition to Sampson Souvenirs and Voyager Emblems, a small number of companies dominate the market. Most were founded in the U.S. in the late 19th century or during the 1940s. The Chicago Embroidery Company (founded 1890) has specialized in private groups like the Boy Scounts. A-B Emblems (founded c.1940s) originally produced military logos and has had a monopoly on NASA mission patches since 1971. It still operates out of North Carolina. Lion Brothers (founded 1899), out of Maryland, concentrates on outdoor gear. St. Louis Embroidery (founded 1887) has baseball and government customers. Penn Emblem Company (founded 1947) now focuses on corporate and private groups. Coming full circle, all of these groups have connections to the Boy Scouts. The embroidered badge is more popular than ever.
By Paula R. Stiles