ARTIST: John Joseph Lafar (1781-1849) was the son of a dance instructor, Joseph Lafar, and Catherine Bouillat. He and two of his brothers, Peter and John, were trained as silversmiths. From 1805 until 1807 he worked for Charles Prince, who had the city contract to make and number slave badges for those years. Lafar received his first contract to make slave badges in 1809.
CONTEXT: Slave badges were the product of the slave-hire system of Charleston, South Carolina during the 1700s and the 1800s. The slavery system flourished in most southern cities during the nineteenth century but, in general, less than one-third of southern white families owned slaves. Many of the others would hire slave labor on an “as-needed” basis from nearby slaveowners. This custom could prove very profitable for the slaveowner, especially if enslaved workers had special skills that were in demand. Various cities had laws on the books regulating this practice, but Charleston has the distinction of being the only city with a slave-hire system accompanied by the issuance of what are often called “slave tags.”
A slaveowner could pay a license fee, good for one year at a time, on a sliding scale based on the enslaved worker’s primary occupation. In return, the owner would receive a copper tag or badge for each slave registered. The tag containing four pieces of information: the city (Charleston), a serial number, the date (year), and an occupation. The owner was then allowed to hire that slave out to private individuals, businesses, or even the municipal government with the proviso that the enslaved worker would wear the badge at all times when on one of those hire-out jobs and that the slave could only perform the function he was licensed to perform.