COMING to auction on Sept. 9 is a collection of very rare slave-hiring badges from Charleston, S.C. Slave-hiring badges were issued to the owners of slaves who wished to rent them out for day work. In more rural places such an arrangement would have been a purely private affair, but in Charleston the practice became regulated in the early 18th century, and by 1751, hired-out slaves were required to wear badges.
Only 100 or so badges are now extant, and Stack's, which is handling the sale for the John J. Ford Jr. Collection, estimates that the 14 being offered will bring anywhere from $200 to $4,000. While thousands of badges are thought to have been issued by Mobile, Ala.; Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans, only badges from Charleston are known to exist. What happened to all the others is a mystery.
While the badges seem deeply repugnant today -- similar badges were also issued for dogs -- they are illustrative of the culture of slavery. Slaves hired for day work were paid less than whites, and because employers wanted to save money, whites were soon losing business. So Charleston instituted not only the badge system but also a quota system to protect white jobs: fewer badges were issued for occupations in which whites might lose jobs to slaves and more badges were issued for occupations in which nonwhites predominated.