Badges: Symbols of Identity

Badges are unspoken messages. They express identity, indicate membership, declare beliefs or make a fashion statement. They can be subtle or direct, serious or humorous. They provoke strong reactions: approval, respect, fear or hostility.

Badges were first mass-produced in Rome during the twelfth century AD. They depicted St Peter and St Paul and were purchased by pilgrims to show their devotion and as proof of their pilgrimage. Members of guilds (associations of merchants or craftsmen) then started wearing badges to indicate their professional status. Cheap and quick badge-making technology later captured the imagination of campaigners: in 1807 William Wilberforce ordered 50,000 anti-slavery medals.

The London Emblem Company started selling badge-making machines in the 1970s, giving greater freedom of expression to individuals and small groups. Badges are as popular as ever in the twenty-first century: at Christmas 2003 badge-making kits were widely reported as Britain's bestselling children's toy.

This tour explores the themes and beliefs expressed by twelve very different badges. It was written to accompany the exhibition Status Symbols: identity and belief on modern badges, at the British Museum from 22 July 2004 to 16 January 2005.