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.
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.
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.