Badges of Honor
The symbolism and adventurous history of embroidered patches.
Patches are much more than a primitive form of decorative bedazzling. Sported by everyone from astronauts to zookeepers, these embroidered bits of cloth are powerful symbols of accomplishment and belonging. Wear a patch and you wear your heart on your sleeve, telling the world something significant about who you are and what you do.
The origins of this peculiar practice go back to the small pieces of jewelry worn by medieval pilgrims traveling to religious sites. Found mostly in England, these pilgrim badges arose at about the same time as heraldic badges, similarly small insignia used to show allegiance to a particular family. If you were a servant, family member, or supporter, you’d sport some form of a heraldic badge upon your person. Such emblems were the logos of the pre-modern age. Even guilds and corporations eventually issued livery-like badges to their members. The badge tradition later percolated throughout European militaries in the form of cap badges.
But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the modern tradition of using decorated symbolic patches arose. During the U.S. Civil War, soldiers adapted the European hat badge into embroidered patches that they affixed to their slouchy caps to identify their corps, division, and brigade. Especially early in the conflict, warfighters weren’t likely to have matching uniforms, and so the patch became a distinguishing mark, something that could visually transform a rag-tag band of men into brothers-in-arms.
At the turn of the 20th century, the scouting movement, loosely based on gentlemanly British military ideals, began incorporating embroidered merit patches as symbols of achievement. Scouts could earn a badge by achieving proficiency in a new skill or participating in a certain activity. The Boy Scouts of America issued the original 57 Boy Scout merit badges in 1911 as symbols of shared experience as well as personal accomplishment.
During World War I, the U.S. military began to officially recognize individual squadron patches, often designed by the soldiers themselves. After military officials witnessed the surprising morale boost and camaraderie that these patches generated, General John Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Forces, ordered all U.S. military divisions to adopt their own patch.
Military patches gained a new international significance during World War II, spreading not only through every branch of the U.S. military but also through the armies of other nations. Patches still joined people together in new units, but the surge in different marks indicated another shift toward their power as unique identifiers, symbols created specifically by their wearers. When you wear the same mud as everyone else, your one distinguishing mark—your patch—gains a weighty significance. The squadron patch became a way to express both individuality and connection to one’s companions.
After the two World Wars, the significance and iconography of patches has only grown. Today, there are punk patches, maker patches, and handmade artisanal hipster patches. Even astronauts design their own mission patches.
Here at Real Art, we have our own set of honorary patches, one for each of our 12 Absolutes. We give them out when someone has gone above and beyond the call of creative work. Following the great patch tradition, they symbolize the ideals that bring us together as well as the extraordinary actions that set us apart.
These patches got you hooked? Here’s more:
Real Art’s 12 Absolutes
A digital edition of our manifesto, patch pictures included
Mozilla Open Badges
Collect and display Mozilla’s digital achievement badges
30 Creative Badge Designs
A buffet of badges collected by CSSgirl.com