Art & Antiques | Slave tags have complex history

October 20, 2013 

I frequently present my antiques at appraisal events in the South. The region is rich in history, and particularly the stories of the slave trade, the Civil War and the heroes of the 19th century come to life in objects from that region of America.

Small objects and keepsakes can say a lot about our history. A small item, a copper tag that was worn around the necks of some people of color known to be slaves during the late 18th century until the end of the Civil War, speaks volumes about the background of our union.

In Charleston, S.C., slave owners could rent out the services of their slaves to others for a fee. The registration fee for slave tags brought income to the city of Charleston. To oversee the slave trade, slaves in Charleston were required to wear a slave tag or identification marker. Fees for the tags, like a license, were set based on the abilities and skills of the slave.

A serial number related to the individual slave. The tags further noted the slave’s occupation and annual date of issue. By law, the slave tag must be worn at all times during the calendar year marked on the tag. Most tags were made of copper by silversmiths or blacksmiths with a contract to make tags for the city.

An authentic slave tag included the city “Charleston” in raised lettering in an arched shape at the top of the tag, near a punched-out hole for the rope to wear around the slave’s neck. Most slave tags measured approximately 2 inches square and were worn in a diamond orientation. Tags included a one-word description of a slave’s skill, such as “porter,” “servant,” “fisher” or “huckster.” The tax year in raised numbers, such as “1829” or “1841,” was also found on authentic slave tags.

There were laws in place in the early 1800s that allowed slave owners to hire out their slaves. These laws were in place in cities including Mobile, Ala., Norfolk, Va., New Orleans and Savannah, Ga. But the only Southern city that had a strict regulatory method for keeping track of these slaves was Charleston. One requirement known only to slaves in Charleston related to the use of slave tags, which are highly collectible today. Authentic slave tags command from $75 to $3,000, depending on condition, occupation noted on the tag and date of issue.

Lori Verderame presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Watch “Dr. Lori” on “Auction Kings” on Discovery, visit or, or call 888-431-1010.

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