Category Archives: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia and Patches

Knowledge Versus Ignorance: Criticizing Displays of Historical Artifacts


I have a steadily growing respect for those who take the time to research, organize and arrange, transport and display their collections to share with an audience. Depending on the artifacts and the means of displaying, it takes an incredible amount of time to prepare for a public showing, ensuring that each piece or groupings of items are carefully organized and placed to convey the display’s central message or theme. Regardless of the measure of attention to detail one can employ in assembling a gathering of artifacts to display, mistakes can and often do get made.

Invariably, one can find historical inaccuracies with any re-telling or portrayal of an event, placement and descriptions of artifacts, despite the research and effort for meticulous representations. I have visited some of the finest museums that employ staff and volunteers with more than a hundred years of combined education and experience in researching and curating artifacts and yet they still can assemble displays with pieces that are incorrect. There have been times where I engaged with museum personnel in order to correct the issue, providing sources in an effort to back my assertions. In those instances, I have been thanked for the information and corrections were subsequently made while some times, I have been met with valid contradictory facts (though they have agreed with the information I provided) that support their reasons for decisions to keep the displays as established.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

The above saying has many unfounded attributions (Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, etc.) and I chose not to provide a source as doing so is folly. However, the lack of a verifiable originator is as irrelevant as the sentiment is poignant. I take this saying to heart, especially when providing any measure of correction an expert in their field or vocation. To approach a museum curator, historian, educator or serious artifact collector with contrary facts that fly in the face of their efforts requires assured knowledge, facts and a tactfully respectful approach. Before I open my mouth, I want to be certain that my suspicions and thoughts are indeed correct.

The WWI Army uniform belonged to my great uncle who served as an artilleryman in France during the war.

Helmets from three of the combatant nations in the war are (left to right): French, U.S., German. The bayonet in the foreground is a French Lebel.

For nearly the entire month of September, my collection of World War I artifacts was publicly displayed at my state’s largest fair. I chose to select every piece that is related to the Great War and organize, arrange and display them to honor the centennial of the United States’ participation (along with U.S. military artifacts, I included the Canadian Forestry Corps pieces to honor my maternal great grandfather’s WWI service). Included in my display were many artifacts that I inherited from family members who served in that war along with pieces that I collected due to my specific interest in this very troubling era of modern U.S. history. Included within the exhibit were three original WWI uniforms; one, worn by my great uncle when he served in a US Army artillery regiment and the other two were U.S. Navy enlisted jumper tops, complete with rating badges. At the conclusion of the fair, I went to breakdown the display and retrieve my collection at which time, the coordinator handed personal notes from spectators and folks with questions or are in need of assistance with their own artifacts. Among the notes were two criticisms: one that didn’t agree with the placement of the placard that described the entire collection (he thought it should have been adjacent to my uncle’s uniform) while the other person took the time to point out the inaccuracies with the rating badges on the two WWI navy uniforms.

The two WWI uniforms that raised questions from an unknown critic. This display was called out for having the incorrect rating badges on the incorrect sleeves regardless of them being original and untouched from the veterans who wore them during the Great War.

“Your rates are on the wrong arm,” the expert began his note. “Crows face forward, ” he continued, “there are right arm ‘rates’ and left arm (ratings),” the unnamed critic stated. When I first read through his note, I stopped and looked over at the display (I hadn’t’ yet removed the arrangement of uniforms on their mannequins nor the arrangement of period-correct rating badges on the bottom of the case) and stared for a moment and re-read the note again. “What is he referring to?
I thought to myself. “Does he think that I sewed these badges on rather than the sailors who originally wore the uniforms?”

I have authored several articles regarding U.S. Navy rating badges (see below) and have been collecting them since I obtained my first one through advancement during my own service in the Navy when I was promoted to petty officer third class. A few years later, I inherited my maternal grandfather’s World War II uniforms that were complete and had his Ship’s Cook first class rating badges affixed to the left sleeves. In my collection are rating badges dating to 1905, post-1913, post-1922 and on up to the 1960s. I own several hundred badges including some of the rarest ratings that existed during these eras. In my collection are several uniforms from this same era (I don’t have anything dating from pre-1900…yet) and all of it has been thoroughly researched. Though some of my collecting colleagues would infer that I possess expert knowledge in this area, there are many who have far greater knowledge and experience researching the history of enlisted marks and whose published works I often reference. I concede that there is always someone with more knowledge in any given field of research and study. For this reason, I continued to ponder the unknown sender’s critical note.

As I started to dissect the message in an effort to lend a measure of credence or perhaps to give him some benefit of doubt, I analyzed his usage of terminology along with his stated “facts” as I attempted to understand his perspective. One term that he repeatedly misused was “rates.” Though the critic understood certain facts surrounding rating badges, he didn’t understand that there is a distinct difference between two very important terms: rate and rating (see: U.S. Navy Officer Ranks and Enlisted Rates – navy.mil). Sailors (and U.S. Navy collectors) don’t refer to the insignia worn on uniforms as “rates” but rather, rating badge.

The unknown critic pointed out that on my two WWI navy uniform tops, the rating badges were affixed to the left sleeve and that the eagle (universally referred to as a crow) was facing the the rear, vice forward as is seen on present-day uniforms. The inference being made is that the eagles on both badges, each affixed to their respective uniform’s left sleeves, are facing to the rear (the beak of the eagle is pointing towards”his” left wing).

In concert with the eagle’s directional facing, the critic suggested that there are rating badges (“rates”) for either the left or right arms. In the uniform regulations of 1886, specifications were made that established the eagle left-facing with its wings pointed horizontally to the sides. Also, the regulations specified that petty officers of the starboard watch were to wear rating badges on their right sleeves while the left sleeve was to be used for those assigned to the port watch. This arrangement of the rating badges remained in place until the publication of the U.S. Navy uniform regulations of January 25, 1913 called for a change in the location of rating badges so that the were no longer worn on the sleeves corresponding to assigned watches. Right arm badges were to signify men of the Seamen Branch; left arm rating badges were to be used by personnel of the Artificer Branch, Engine Room Force, and all other petty officers. The eagle continued to face left on all rating badges.

The last statement on the critic’s note, “1941 is when it all changed” is only partially correct as it disregards both the 1886 and 1913 regulations and focuses on the changes made just prior to World War II. Within the May 13, 1941 regulations it was specified that the eagle was to face to the left in the rates comprising the Seaman Branch: Boatswain Mate, Turret Captain, Signalman, Gunner’s Mate, Fire Controlman, Quartermaster, Mineman and Torpedoman’s Mate. All other rating badges (worn on the left sleeve) were to have an eagle facing to the right – or towards the front of the uniform. With the release of the navy uniform regulations of April 2,1949, the right arm rates were disestablished, moving all enlisted ratings to the left sleeve and the eagle’s beak pointed to the right wing.

Neither of the two WWI navy uniforms within my Great War display had rating badges from the Seaman Branch – one, an Electrician’s Mate 2/c (with a radio technician distinguishing mark) from the Artificer Branch and the other a Ship’s Cook 2/c was part of the Special Branch.

If the critic had left his contact information, I might have considered a gentle discussion to provide a better understanding of enlisted Navy rate and rating badge history along with authoritative references. Rather than to take offense at the man’s note, I can surmise that he cares about accuracy in displayed naval artifacts enough to correct me. However, his omission of his name, email or phone number might be more indicative of the equivalent of a blind grenade-toss at something he has great disdain for. Unfortunately, I will never know.

I feel compelled to offer my gratitude to this unknown person for giving me a reason to pause for a self-assessment as I strive for accuracy with my collecting, research, writing and displaying these treasure. His note also serves as a reminder for me to maintain humility when I observe historical inaccuracies and to always measure myself before opening my mouth or firing off an ill-informed message.

Related Veteran’s Collection Articles:

Reference:

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Backhanded Marks: Special Markings on 1930s and 40s Rating Badges


When visitors read the entirety of the articles published on The Veterans Collection, It may seem as though I favor Navy items with my militaria interest. Though all branches of the armed forces are represented within my collection, being a Navy veteran, I suppose that I pursue mostly what I know. Within the area of naval militaria, tend to prefer the enlisted uniforms above those from the officer ranks. An even deeper dive into what has been published on this site indicates my level of interest within the sphere of rating badge insignia.

This Fire Control Technician 1/c shows the script, “Liona,” the trademark of Lion Brothers on the reverse side.

For me, collecting rating badges amounts to a walk through history. As one can select virtually any current rating and begin to trace its roots of development back to the beginning of the naval service. With my own rating, I constructed such a lineage – a family tree of sorts – that resulted in what is today the Operations Specialist (see: Tracking U.S. Navy Specialties: The History of Radarmen). The designs of the rating badges themselves have been taken through a progression that commenced with sailors hand-embroidering their own directly from an ink-stamped fabric pattern to today’s mass-produced (and quite sterile, in my honest opinion) rating badges (see: Navy Enlisted Ratings Eliminated: What are the Impacts on Sailors and Collectors?). Though I have spent a bit of effort researching and sharing my results in this collecting focus, a recent question submitted to our Contact US form revealed that there is still more to share in regards to rating badges that will help collectors, family members (who, like me, inherited pieces from a veteran relative) and folks who are simply interested in navy uniform history.

 “As I was flipping through my father’s uniform patches, I noticed that the woman who embroidered them had also embroidered her name on the back (and) I was wondering if anyone else had noticed that?”

While all of the articles that are published here have dealt with what appears on the front, I have yet to deal with the information that appears on the reverse of many rating badges. With markings applied in different manners (chain stitched, woven or ink-stamped) and with varying information, the meaning of some of the information is self-evident while others are rather cryptic leaving collectors to only speculate as to who applied them and why.

For a few years leading up to World War II extending to well in the 1960s, many rating badges were marked on their reverse sides (though a larger percentage of them were manufactured with blank backs). One expert, John A. Stacey, a preeminent U.S. Navy rating researcher and collector has narrowed down many of the embroidered details and provided the details in his book, U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885-1982.

Perhaps the best way to approach the marks is to group them by the two types of marks: Manufacturers and Dates.

Manufacturers:
While this list indicates a handful of rating badge suppliers, in reality there were countless manufacturers providing the Navy with millions or rating badges though the large majority left their work unmarked. Some of the manufacturers’ marks that I have on rating badges within my own collection (indicated below with bold) are the more commonly found varieties. Two of the marks (“C” and the anchor symbol) remain a mystery as their origins or, perhaps what the marks represented. While I do own a confirmed GEMSCO rating badge, it was manufactured in the early post-war years and lacks a physical embroidered mark (it is sealed in the branded cellophane). The wartime GEMSCO, Danecraft and Vanguard marked badges are embroidered in similar fashion to the Liona-marked badge (seen in the first image shown above).

  • “B (with a year)” – Blumberg Brothers (of New York)
  • “Danecraft” – Danecraft, Inc., Providence, RI.
  • “GEMSCO” – General Merchandising Co., Milford, CT.
  • Liona”Lion Brothers, Baltimore, MD. (pre-war Lion Brothers badges had the Liona on both sides of the V of the chevron (one is mirrored – reversed)
  • “NYEC” – New York Emblem Company
  • “N Y” – Possibly the New York Emblem Company but not definitively known.
  • “Vanguard” – Vanguard Inc. of New York. Current supplier of rating badges for the U.S. Navy.
  • “C” – Unknown manufacturer
  • Marked with an anchor symbol – Unknown manufacturer

 

Besides the maker’s marks being embroidered onto the backs of badges, collectors may also find ratings with what appears to be dates affixed in various locations.

There is debate among collectors regarding what the date information refers to. While preeminent rating researcher John Stacey has determined that the four digits mark the date that the badge was made. Other prominent collectors with years of experience believe that the date pertains to the year that the contract was awarded (by the Navy Department) for the manufacturing of the badge. If it is a contract date, it is possible that it also coincides with the manufacturing date. However, it could have been made within the contract year or in those that follow. It is not precisely known when the dates began to be applied to rating badges but I have seen some (displayed in others’ collections) dated as early as 1936. Embroidered dates are consistently located in a few places on the reverse sides of these 1930s-40s rating badges.

Dates:

  • Stitched; Top Chevron (located in the “V”)
  • Stitched; Lower Chevron (left of “V”)
  • Woven – “BeVo*” style.
  • Ink stamped – Locations of the date stamp placement can vary widely from directly on the back of the chevrons, above or below the eagle or even directly upon the backing of the embroidery.

While I have several hundred rating badges, the majority of them with back embroidery carry the Liona markings. The earliest date mark that I have is from 1941 and I only have one or two of the C and Anchor marked-badges. I will always be on the lookout for other rating badges with these specialized markings but only if what is on the front aligns with what I collect.

See also:

 

* BeVo weave is a machine-woven process developed in the early 1800s by a Frenchman named Jacquard. The manufacturing process  used a roll of material that was fed into a weaving machine synchronously as a card strip (that had a series of holes forming the design pattern used as a guide) was fed in. The mechanical elements would extract the information from the card and weave the design into the base material. In the late 19th and early 20th century, European military uniforms were adorned with rank and insgnia manufactured using this process. “BeVo” is a combination of words (“Be” from the German word for partnership: beteiligung and Vo from vorsteher: derived from the merging of two German firms –  Lucas Vorsteher and Ewald Vorsteher).

Affordable, Quick and Easy Display and Storage for Your Collection


Sadly, many collectors spend more time acquiring items and less organizing and displaying their pieces, leaving them to sit in bags or boxes, tucked away (source: All Experts.com).

One of the challenges for collectors of militaria, besides trying to find space for storage, is the art of showcasing and displaying these precious artifacts.

Sadly, many collectors spend more time acquiring items and less organizing and displaying their pieces, leaving them to sit in bags or boxes, tucked away (source: All Experts.com).

Most collectors lack the expansive spaces to construct elaborate display cases that allow for propping up mannequins and life-sized dioramas. I’d imagine that the average militaria enthusiast is very similar to me in that their collection consists predominantly of small items. The lion’s share of my assemblage is made up of shoulder sleeve insignia (ArmyNavyMarine Corps and US Army Air Force), navy enlisted rank insignia (crows) and several, various naval devices, among many other pieces which include medals, ribbons and ribbon bars and a few other pins and devices.

One of the most popular display and storage tools that collectors employ are the inexpensive and easily storable two-sided boxes known as Riker cases or mounts. These simple cases are available in a wide array of sizes and dimensions providing collectors with the ability to both store and display smaller pieces, laying them flat against a cushioned polyester fill material.

The simplistic yet functional aspects of Riker cases and mounts provide collectors with the ability to display large numbers of pieces held firmly in place (source: Cowan Auctions).

For the display of items like medals, especially vintage pieces that have become delicate due to decades of decay, placing them in a shadow box with their planchets hanging from the ribbon suspension only serves to accelerate deterioration of the threads of the ribbon. With a Riker case, the medal lays flat and is held in place, keeping the load of the medal firmly against the polyester fill material.

Displaying patches, such as these Vietnam War-era pocket suspended pieces, is easy (source: Beezman | Wehrmacht Awards).

One added benefit of incorporating Riker mounts into your collection storage and display plans is security and theft prevention. If you intend to show your collection in a public forum, sticky fingers are invariably going to find their way to your displays. Leaving valuable patches, medals or pins sitting on a tabletop only guarantees that you will have to replace something. Leaving your precious items displayed inside a Riker case offers your audience easy viewing yet shields you from suffering loss. Due to the case’s diminutive sizes and flat dimensions, they are easily transported between home and the show.

One downside to using Riker cases for your display is that they tend to be rather bland and ordinary, and lack the ability to hang on a wall or prop up on table. Fortunately for collectors there are crafty entrepreneurs who recognize a need for something more stylish that addresses these deficiencies. Home-Museum.com offers these beautiful yet subtle hand crafted wood frames that wrap around Rikers, providing a touch of sophistication.

This Riker case contains a nice collection of WWI Imperial German medals and decorations. The collector added a more decorative backing material to add some character to the display (source: Mike Huxley | Pickelhaubes.com).

Bear in mind that while some Rikers incorporate glass (instead of plexiglass), it more than likely lacks UV protection for the contents. Exercise caution when hanging or displaying your Riker-mounted collection, protecting the valuable pieces from the damaging effects of light.

Embroidered Artistry – Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI)


This WWI 81st Division shoulder sleeve insignia shows their division symbol, the Wildcat (image source: griffinmilitaria.com).

To most casual observers, army insignia patches (known as shoulder sleeve insignia or SSI) affixed to the shoulders of military uniforms, while visually interesting, are quite mysterious. Although today’s current designs are subdued (with muted black or brown stitching to be consistent with current camouflage schemes), they still employ sophisticated and intricate embroidery that formerly were lavished with brilliantly colored thread-work. Prior to the early 20th Century, other than rank insignia, army troops’ shoulders were plain.

During World War One, the 81st Division was the first to be authorized to employ a shoulder-affixed unit identification as they headed for France in 1918. The “Wildcats,” as the 81st was known, was the only U.S. Army division with permission for their personnel to wear patches on their uniforms during the war. With only a few short weeks remaining in the war, other units followed suit obtaining permission from General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to begin wearing patches on October 19, 1918. Soon, there would be an abundance of varying unit insignia with multiple variations of patches for the individual units.

Many of the WWI patches were constructed in-theater and were hand-made resulting, in some cases, with various representations on the same design. As a patch collector, this is both a point of frustration and enjoyment as they could spend years tracking down every known SSI-design instance.

This unique 4th Infantry Division patch features a roundel insignia of their parent, the 3rd Army in the center of the patch.

As WWI veterans returned home, their ornately decorated uniforms drew the attention of would-be collectors and soon, the practice of stripping uniforms for their patches was born. It wasn’t uncommon for veterans to gift these patches to their children, giving birth to what would become one of the largest segments of militaria collecting, to this day.

Exercise caution (or seek advice of experienced collectors) prior to purchasing patches of this era. Considering the availability of period-correct wool flannel material, many of the World War 1 SSIs are easily reproduced and passed off to inexperienced collectors as authentic.

Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the American Expeditionary Forces 1918-1919

By the mid-1930s, collectors in upstate New York organized an exchange that would become the basis for The American Society of Military Insignia Collectors or ASMIC, one of the oldest organizations in the area of militaria collecting. With a resource such as ASMIC, collectors can draw from the knowledge of professional collectors as well as trade or purchase insignia.

In the years leading up to and during World War II, SSI were mass-produced and designs were standardized which meant that variations would be reduced. However, this did not eliminate variations altogether.

During the Viet Nam war, subdued patches were introduced for wear on combat uniforms providing additional variants of the same insignia. With the downsizing and restructuring of the Army, units have been decommissioned or combined resulting in fewer SSIs. When the U.S. Army transitioned to the Army Service Uniform (ASU), or dress blues, completely by October 1, 2015, the change all but eliminated the colorful patches as they are no longer worn on dress uniforms.

The only constant is change and uniform changes have been happening within the Army, Air Force and Navy in the past few years. Awaiting approval by

Will the Army do away with unit patches all together? Only time will tell.

 

 

Theater-Made Militaria: Shoulder Sleeve Insignia…are they Real?


This Australian-made First Marine Division patch was created for the battle-hardened veterans of Guadalcanal while on R&R in Melbourne Australia (source: Flying Tiger Antiques).

Within the realm of just about every collecting pastime exists undocumented glossaries packed with terms and phrases used to describe certain aspects of that particular genre. For those of us new to collecting, these terms can be some of the biggest obstacles to understanding the ins and outs of collecting, especially as we are trying to navigate our way to better understand specifics and details.

In some instances, terms can be rather self-explanatory (at least for people like me), but still may not make a whole lot of sense. Such is the case with “theater-made.” which seems to be bandied about rather freely.

As I launched into militaria collecting, I saw the term applied to a broad swath of army items, predominantly shoulder sleeve insignia (or patches) dating from World War I to present day. What astounded me was that these experts could spot not only that a particular piece was theater-made, but could tell you where in the world it was made. With certain pieces, a theater-made example could sell for considerably more than an American-made patch. The Australian-made 1st Marine Division patch comes to mind.

As a veteran of the U.S. Navy, theater-made items seem commonplace. During our six month-long deployments to the Western Pacific, our ships would visit ports in countries such as the Philippines and Hong Kong. During our three- and four-day stays, many of us would take what little money we saved and head out to the tailor and embroidery shops to order custom uniforms or uniform items from the local craftsmen. These special-order pieces add a unique and personal touch for uniforms worn out on liberty or to make us stand out in a positive manner during inspection. However, we never thought of these components as theater-made.

This WWII army veteran’s uniform sports a right-shoulder SSI of the 5307th Composite Unit (also known as Merrill’s Marauders).

As some of the custom pieces are slightly more rudimentary in construction, forgers tend to leverage that to their advantage. When collectors begin to pursue what are being passed off as theater-made items, they must have some sort of education before pulling the trigger to protect themselves from being deceived.