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A collector’s guide to the history & evolution of the humble pin badge

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“Badges are only limited by the maker’s creativity, and since the 1990s have been widely used by artists and designers, as well as given away in their hundreds of thousands by businesses and charities”

The oldest pin badge I own is from 1936, and it marks the forthcoming coronation of King Edward VIII. It’s a bit of a historical curiosity; it has the date of his coronation, May 1937, but he abdicated in December 1936 to marry an American. Most un-British behaviour. It’s just one of hundreds of badges I’ve collected. All of have been bought direct from artists or bands, found in charity shops or at car boot sales, picked up for pence at markets. I once paid £2 for a badge and that felt extravagant. Badges, are cheap, ephemeral and disposable and all the more interesting because of it.

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The first badges as we know them date to patents taken out in 1894 and 1896 by Whitehead and Hoag Ltd of Newark in New Jersey, USA. The company used celluloid to protect the paper or cloth design – the first real use for this new material. The company planned to use them as buttons – the term the Americans still use for a pin badge. But they were soon being made with images of music stars, actors and celebrities.

So my coronation badge is part of a noble tradition. In 1897 Queen Victoria, then ruling over 400 million people and a quarter of the world’s population, celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. The new badges were perfect for the occasion, and were sold across the globe. Just imagine how Awesome Merchandise might have cashed in on that event.

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While I don’t have any that old, I do have lots of badges that come with memories attached. That’s part of what makes them so interesting. The first ones I collected are from my childhood. Born in 1974, they’re markers of time and culture. The Tufty Club, British Telecom’s Buzby urging me to ‘Make someone happy’ with a phone call, Clark’s Commando shoes. My badge marking me as a member of the Warlord comic ‘Secret Agent’ club, and a Blue Peter competition winner’s badge. When I was a child, my dad ran a record shop in Worthing, so the odd badge promoting a band made it home, too. I have more badges celebrating music than any other type. There had been a smattering of badges for hippy bands – I have an early Quicksilver Messenger Service one that was my dad’s. But punk was when the explosion happened.

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Better Badges on London’s Portobello Road (punk’s epicentre) were behind it. In 1976 they made and sold badges at the Ramones and Flamin’ Groovies show at The Roundhouse, London. A year later, they were mass-producing badges and Rob Gretton’s first act when he started managing Joy Division was to place an order with Better Badges.

“Badges were essential for punks, but were made smarter by the New Wave bands…. and badges quickly became part of pop culture… every band had a badge”

Badges were essential for punks, but were made smarter by the New Wave bands. I have a neat, simple one for Elvis Costello an the Attractions that still looks good today. And badges quickly became part of pop culture. I remember visits to Covent Garden as a teenager, and one stall at the edge of the market had boards covered in hundreds of design, one for every band however obscure. Every band had a badge. At college, badges for indie bands were signifiers of cool, a shibboleth. And then Britpop adopted the badge too. Blur did it with class, producing full enamel badges of the Mallard locomotive to promote Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993. But badges for S*M*A*S*H, Echobelly, Elastica were in circulation and every Third Division support act made badges, sometimes before they wrote songs.

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Badges are only limited by the maker’s creativity, and since the 1990s have been widely used by artists and designers, as well as given away in their hundreds of thousands by businesses and charities. Today, Awesome Merchandise continue to aid creatives with not just quick and simple ordering and short runs, but new ideas like the metallic badges that were my last order from the company. I’ve been designing and making badges for 15 years, with both my own bench press for short runs and larger designs and the help of Awesome Merchandise for mass production.

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“Today, Awesome Merchandise continue to aid creatives with not just quick and simple ordering and short runs, but new ideas like the metallic badges that were my last order from the company”

My collection will keep growing, with my own badges being added alongside designs from artists and bands across the world. Most collectors aim for completeness, for the final thing that means they’ve got the full set. That’s an impossible dream for badge collectors. Because companies like Awesome Merchandise mean there’s no end in sight for the humble pin badge.

Guest post by Dan Thompson.

Website / Tribe Vibe Project / Twitter

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