It seems appropriate to be posting this in honor of Labor Day, which is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.
A few years ago I picked of a mixed lot of vintage and antique ephemera at a Pace Auction. I sold most of the items – which ranged from political tie tacks to celluloid pinbacks, but held onto one piece for quite a while. Pictured above, this was a well-worn, but intriguing employee photo badge of a woman, circa 1940s from the M.H.R. Company. I’ve always been drawn to vintage photographs of random people and have collected a few over the years, including daguerreotypes in beautiful tooled leather cases. I love doing research, especially in the realm of Americana and defunct industries, so this type of collectible is a perfect fit for my sensibilities. These badges offer a glimpse into yesteryear – back to a time and place in America where workers sometimes toiled long and hard hours in poor conditions.
I found out that these badges are highly collectible and most of them are well out of my price range. I wonder why they are so sought after – are others as fascinated by the visual qualities and historic aspects as I am? The finest examples sell for as much as $200 – while even poor, damaged badges sell for $25 and up. Since my interest is primarily historic, I don’t need to own any to fulfill my fascination with the companies’ history, so I sold mine. Alas, it only fetched about $20.00, likely due to the obscure company. While some have the names of the employees, most are random faces and employee ID numbers of workers who have grown old and passed away. Only surviving relatives would possibly know who they are, but nevertheless, they possess an intriguing aura. Here is a selection of my favorites downloaded from recent ebay auctions.
Brush Laboratories, based in Cleveland, Ohio, was founded in 1919, and developed products that utilized piezoelectric crystals. In 1930, it was reorganized as the Brush Development Company, selling piezoelectric phonograph pickups. Later, the company manufactured wire recorders, microphones, and speakers. Brush Development merged with the original Brush Labs and the Cleveland Graphite Bronze company in 1952.
The above employee badge dates back to World War II, when women commonly worked at ammunition plants. Of course, the name Remington is associated with guns, and in fact, it is the largest U.S. producer of shotguns and rifles. Remington is also the only U.S.-based company that produces both firearms and ammunition domestically. The company was purchased by DuPont during the Depression. In 1940, the U.S. Army was worried about its ammunition capacity and asked Remington to expand its production plants. With the help of DuPont, Remington built the Lake City Arsenal in Independence, Missouri and Denver Ordnance plants, followed by several other locations. While partially obscured, it looks like this Rosie the Riveter worked at the Lake City location.
Larry Bell established the Bell Aircraft Company in 1935 in the former Consolidated Aircraft plant in Buffalo, New York. Within four months of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bell Aircraft Corporation broke ground in Marietta on a new production facility. The massive plant assisted in the production and assembly of Boeing Corporation’s B-29 Superfortress, which back then was the most technologically advanced bomber in the world. Bell Aircraft effectively transformed rural Marietta, Georgia into a major industrial center of the state, but after the war, they consolidated operations and the Marietta plant became the property of the Lockheed Corporation. Bell transitioned into the helicopter business and is known for its UH-1 Iroquois, which was widely flown in the Vietnam War. This badge is unusual in that it has the employee’s signature.
Ingalls Shipbuilding was established in 1938, and is now part of Huntington Ingalls Industries. The company is a pioneer in the development and production of technologically advanced, highly capable warships for the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, as well as foreign and commercial customers. The company’s first vessel was the SS Exchequer, a cargo ship launched on October 16, 1940. It was later acquired by the U.S. Navy and renamed the USS Pocomoke (AV9), earning battle stars during World War II. The first ship Ingalls built specifically for WW II was the USS Arthur Middleton, launched in June 1941.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was established in 1921 as a joint venture between the two states through an interstate compact authorized by the U.S. Congress. The Port Authority oversees regional transportation infrastructures such as bridges, tunnels, airports, and seaports, within their designated geographical jurisdiction. On May 31, 1947, the Port Authority was awarded a 50-year lease to rehabilitate, develop, and operate La Guardia Airport, JFK International Airport, and Floyd Bennett Field. This badge is unusual because it reveals a little more data including the employee’s last name and date. A list of current paid employees (as of 2015) is public record and available online.
The Bucyrus Foundry and Manufacturing Company in Bucyrus, Ohio was founded in 1880. In 1893, company headquarters moved to South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they produced surface and underground mining equipment, steam excavators, and steam shovels. One of the company’s earliest claims to fame (in 1904) was providing 77 of the 102 steam shovels that dug the Panama Canal. In 1927, they merged with the Erie Steam Shovel Company to form Bucyrus-Erie. In 1993, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, but managed to survive. In 2010, Caterpillar acquired the company in a transaction valued at $8.6 billion. This badge has the height marks like the one I sold, which makes it look like a mugshot. Since this fellow’s eyes are closed, my guess is they only took one shot of each employee.
Most of the badges I stumbled upon were for highly industrial companies – associated with heavy equipment and such. This employee badge is quite unique in that it is for Crosse & Blackwell – the British food purveyor that has a rather classy connotation. The business was founded in 1706 as the West and Wyatt grocery business, which made and sold condiments and pickles during the 1700s. In 1819, two young apprentices working at West and Wyatt became friends. Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell bought out West and Wyatt in 1829 and renamed it Crosse & Blackwell.
By 1930, the holding company had plants in Baltimore, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Paris, and Toronto, as well as the original one in Hamburg. During WW II, the cans that rolled through the Baltimore plant on Eastern Avenue were filled with military rations of puddings, marmalade, preserves, sauces, and tomato products. I cannot determine when the Baltimore plant closed, but it was likely decades ago. From the signature, it looks like this fellow’s name was H.D. Winslow.
Another Baltimore-based plant, the American Sugar Refining Company was the largest American sugar refining industry in the early 1900s. Incorporated in the state of New Jersey on January 10, 1891, just 16 years later, the corporation owned or controlled 98% of the sugar processing capacity in the U.S. It had major refineries in Brooklyn, Bunker Hill, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chalmette, Louisiana; and Spreckels, California. Several of these sites still produce Domino Sugar, but the Brooklyn location was demolished in 2014. I am not surprised that the hot waterfront property in Williamsburg is being developed into 2,200 residential units.
There are many references to the south Philadelphia Gulf Oil Refinery, most tied to the tragic 1975 fire that killed eight firefighters. Built originally in 1904 and located near the juncture of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, the Philadelphia refinery expanded to more than 700 acres on the outskirts of the city. In the early dawn hours of August 17, vapors were ignited by a tanker off-loading crude oil at a Gulf dock in the Schuylkill River, with flames spreading quickly into the tank farm. The gentleman in this badge looks rather dapper and may have been an executive in the office.
Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval complex in the world. It is located in the Sewells Point area of the City of Norfolk, near the site of the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac (CSS Virginia). By December 1939, more than $4 million in Naval projects were underway there. By the summer of 1940, the Station employed about 8,000 personnel, a number larger than any time since the end of World War I. This badge is likely from WWII – I wonder what job employee number 64855 performed at the Station. Forty employees lost their lives when explosions and an inferno destroyed 33 aircraft and at least 15 buildings on September 17, 1943 – there was just one woman among them named Elizabeth Korensky.
Most vintage employee badges are round, but a few are other shapes.
The origins of the Bethlehem Steel Company (of Pennsylvania) dates back to 1857, when a group of railroaders and investors in Bethlehem, Pa., founded the Saucona Iron Company, which four years later was renamed Bethlehem Iron Company. In 1899 the facilities were acquired by the Bethlehem Steel Company. By World War II, the company was thriving and expanding, but strong competition from foreign steelmakers promoted diversification. Low-cost foreign competition and the loss of millions of dollars in a lawsuit were partially responsible for the demise of the company. In 2001 they filed for bankruptcy and shut down operations two years later. This fellow worked at the Steelton plant located along the Susquehanna River, former home of the Pennsylvania Steel Company, and after Bethlehem closed, the ArcelorMittal steel plant.
Western Airlines was founded in 1925 in California and started flying the following year. They operated throughout the U.S. and a few international destinations including London, England and Nassau, Bahamas. Western was headquartered at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) before it merged with Delta in 1987. Its slogan was, “Western Airlines….The Only Way To Fly!” I wonder in what capacity employee #3348 worked for the airline.
The portrait of F. H. Green, Employee #24-502 looks like it could have been taken by a Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer like Walker Evans. I wonder if it is Depression era or perhaps World War II. During the war years, Frigidaire stopped all civilian production and manufactured .50 caliber Browning machine guns, aircraft propellers and parts, hydraulic controls for airplanes, and other military items. The origins of Frigidaire go back to 1915, when Alfred Mellowes designed the first self-contained refrigerator. The Guardian Frigerator Company was founded the following year to manufacture his invention. General Motors purchased it in 1918 and named it Frigidaire – GM owned the company until 1979.
Modern-Era Employee Badges
In this day and age of retina scans and other high-tech means of ID’ing employees, you would think badges would be obsolete. They still exist, but possess none of the charm of their really cool predecessors – no offense to the woman in this sample badge. One thing is for sure … these days, employers would not get away with making you stand against a mugshot-like height chart!