Copper Slave Tags

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Copper Slave Tags


By: Louie Psihoyos

Date: 1840

Source: "Copper Slave Tags." © Louie Psihoyos/Corbis. 2006.

About the Photographer: Louie Psihoyos was a staff photographer for National Geographic magazine and the recipient of numerous awards. His work includes a wide array of nature photography, as well as Hollywood campaigns and stock photography, including pictures of historical documents.


These copper slave tags, dating from 1831–1840, were worn by slaves in Charleston, South Carolina. These slaves were hired out by their masters for work at the trades shown on the tags, occasionally receiving some portion of the wages themselves. They were required to wear the tags, purchased annually from the city treasurer's office, or risk jail with fines levied on the masters. The "hire badges" or "slave tax badges," as they were also called, served to differentiate slaves that were legally "jobbing out" from Black freed-men, runaway slaves, slaves attempting to earn money on their own, and those whose masters did not pay the required tax.

As one of the few enduring artifacts possessed by individual slaves, these tags have become increasingly valuable to both collectors and scholars. Although hiring out slaves for wage labor was common throughout the southern United States before the Civil War, contracts or paper tickets usually documented it. Metal tags, stamped with "Charleston," the year, a trade, and a sequential number for each trade, were issued only in Charleston from 1783–1790 and from 1800–1865.



See primary source image.


Charleston's slave tags are unique amongst slavery's artifacts. They evoke some of the horror and fascination of the other material remains, like shackles, but also prompt speculation on those who wore and perhaps lost or discarded their badges. These individuals included house servants, porters (who moved cargo on the docks), fishermen, fruit sellers ("hucksters " or "fruiterers" ), carpenters, masons, tailors, and a host of other skilled tradesmen.

Urban slaves constituted only about five percent of the U.S. slave population, and these men and some women were more likely to have the skilled jobs that free citizens required on a part-time basis than those enslaved in the rural South. According to Theresa Singleton, urban slaves also had more access to other people, including free Blacks, as well as "education, opportunities for self-hire and self-purchase, and the privilege of 'live-out' in separate sections of town." As such, the badges were not perceived as shameful by their bearers, but were highly sought after, as described by Greene, Hutchins, and Hutchins in their book on the tags and their legal underpinnings.

Greater freedom, coupled with the hired slaves' economic competition with white artisans, resulted in increasingly complex laws regarding slave hiring from 1800 through 1866, culminating in Charleston's badges. Originally, freedmen were also required to display badges, and a few "Freedman" badges dating from 1783–1790 have been found. After 1800, only "jobbing slaves" needed badges. All slaves except house servants were required to display the tags, either strung around the neck or sewn onto clothing, and fees and penalties associated with breaking the slave hire laws increased.

A limited number of these tags were made. For example, Greene, Hutchins, and Hutchins estimate less than five thousand were issued in 1850, with about 2,400 for servants. Since tags were probably melted and re-used each year, the fraction of tags that have been discovered is quite small. Fewer than four hundred have been found, mostly in Charleston.

As symbols of slavery, these tags have been sought after since the early 1900s, although their use was not widely understood. Counterfeit badges were marketed as early as 1903. In 2002, a huckster's badge from 1803 brought more than $26,000 at an auction, and there has been a corresponding increase in forgery, as well as more interest and understanding of the role they played in one aspect of "the peculiar institution" of slavery.



Greene, Harlan, Harry S. Hutchins, Jr., and Brian E. Hutchins. Slave Badges and the Slave-Hire System in Charleston, South Carolina, 1783–1865. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.


Singleton, Theresa A. "The Slave Tag: An Artifact of Urban Slavery." South Carolina Antiquities 16 (1984): 41-65.

Web sites

Dawson, Victoria. Smithsonian Magazine. "Cast in Bondage." 〈〉 (accessed April 30, 2006).