Sign of the Homo Erectus

by Stephen Pewsey


Model: Monika

Hair & Makeup: Dana Delaney

Sign of the Homo Erectus

An Exploration of the Modern Man’s Crest

I’m a scutelliphilist.

It’s not what you think: It’s perfectly legal. The tongue twister is simply a polysyllabic name for patch collecting. You’re on vacation, you go into a store to get a map or some gum, and there next to the postcards is a little stand of souvenir patches. You buy one for a few dollars and presto, you’re a scutelliphilist, too.

Ever since the earliest caveman went for a stroll and brought back a shiny pebble, people have been bringing home mementos of their travels. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were enthusiastic vacationers, especially to religious shrines and hot springs, and often made collections of miniature images of gods and goddesses or models of the places they visited. Christian pilgrims later did the same. Medieval Christian pilgrim patches were usually metal pins, the most collectible being the shell symbol showing the wearer had been to the shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain. Adhered to hats or clothing, they gave major bragging rights among the pious, leading to a lively trade in imitation pieces to adorn the not-so-godly, as mentioned by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Skip over the era of the Grand Tour, when Old Masters and classical sculptures—fake or not—were the must-have collectible, and scroll forward to the age of the railroad and the rise of the blue-collar vacation. On both sides of the Atlantic, ordinary working families streamed out of the choking cities to lakes, mountains, and the coast. It was essential to bring back a trinket or two to show off: china plates, heraldic ornaments, and all kinds of cheap keepsakes.

This industrial age saw the merging of two technologies, which would lead to a golden age for patches and patch display. Factory workers and farmhands needed durable, comfortable and inexpensive protective clothing; denim was the answer. At the same time, the uptake of the jacquard loom to produce intricate woven designs meant that it was possible to mass produce textile patches with insignia and logos. Corporate branding of industrial clothing was born.

The growing highway network spread the trend; gas station workers and truckers sported coveralls with company patches, creating and growing the need for visual identity. The indigo blue of denim was the ideal setting for the display of corporate identity.

Meanwhile, if you could afford to travel in style, your baggage would be adorned with labels, from shipping lines to the ritzy hotels you’d stayed at. And these stick-on decals are collectible in their own right. But the early 20th century was the era not only of super-luxury liner travel; it also featured a back-to-nature movement. The worldwide scouting and guiding movement taught outdoor skills to boys and girls, rewarding them with patches for achievement. The craze for hiking spanned the globe, and by the Roaring Twenties, especially in Germany and the U.S. National Parks, the mountains and wide open spaces swarmed with tourists. Hotspots began selling heraldic and pictorial patches to adorn jackets and backpacks. The patch-making industry was already geared up to supply the demand; the horrors of the First World War familiarized everyone with patches. Millions of men in uniform all wore cloth symbols of rank and military formation, many of them heraldic.

The interwar years saw the rise of mass movements and dictatorships: communism, fascism, and Nazism, each with their symbols, uniforms, and complex hierarchy of badges, and patches. Youth and outdoor movements were brought under party control, but tourism continued. Almost until the end of the war, young Germans went on Nazi-approved hikes and vacations, collecting patches of the places they had visited along the way. The same factories turning out swastika armbands were also making beautiful jacquard patches showing Alpine scenery and Bavarian landscapes. After World War II, GIs occupying Germany were able to send patches back to their loved ones showing where they were stationed. These became known as ‘sweetheart patches.’

In the decades following, from Aruba to Zadar, tourism went global. Wherever the herd went, there was a salesman ready to retail plastic Leaning Towers of Pisa and Eiffel Tower snow globes, not to mention thimbles, patches, and postcards. Patch collecting boomed.

Along came Flower Power, which altered the message. But it wasn’t just a tale of hippies spreading love and peace. There was a wider synergy of style that enabled patch-wearing to hit the fashion heights. Denim—jeans in particular—had been moving from lowly workwear to fashionable leisure clothing of choice. For the baby boomer generation, self-expression was a natural state of affairs, so it’s unsurprising that jeans and patches became two of the most powerful symbols of post-war fashion identity. Denim has become so ubiquitous that it’s now hard to recall that in the 1950s and 1960s, wearing denim was edgy. Denim meant challenging the buttoned-down social norms of earlier generations. Patches changed, too. No longer simply vacation trophies, they became fashion accessories, miniature message boards expressing countercultural views, political allegiance, sexual preference, music or sport affiliation, or no message at all apart from a general rage.

Punk extended the lifespan of the patch, often offering a spiky and rude commentary on life through the medium. For Generation X, denim remained the core medium for displaying patches, but the story was given a spin by the adaptation and incorporation of diverse fabrics, including leather, spandex, and even rubber to display insistent and often obscene patches of rebellion.

Now let’s talk semiotics. The patch itself has no intrinsic value, but it tells a story the wearer wants you to hear. A global society, a society with large standing armies, thousands of law enforcement services, and competing corporate brands, will be a highly visual society, bursting with symbols, logos, and emblems. And these symbols are our modern-day caveman shiny pebbles, gathered by collectors and taken back to the den. In the world of patch collecting, there’s a close association not just with changing fashion trends, but with big boys’ toys—patches from police departments, fire departments, units from the armed forces, space missions, and patches associated with trucking and biking.

For me, however, the travel patch was my kryptonite. From my first childhood vacation way back in the Swinging Sixties in England, I have been slowly gathering patches from every continent. Scrapbook after scrapbook is filled with tiny embroidered coats of arms, flags, maps or miniature views, patches of all material, mostly fabric but also paper or plastic. In my teenage years I had a blue denim jacket, like everyone of my generation, and onto this I sewed the patches I had collected from following my favorite rock bands around England—The Who, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the Rolling Stones, and other lesser-known acts. Although the patches were later unstitched, revealing the original cobalt-blue coloring beneath, I treasured that well-worn Levi’s jacket for decades. I only recently parted with it, to my teenage daughter. Her generation has rediscovered—as retro chic—the simple styling of 1970s denim.

Collectors make up complex regulations for their passions, but I only have one rule: I have to visit the place on the patch to buy the patch. No cheating, no buying patches on eBay, no swapping with other collectors. It’s the fun of the search for me. Of course the hardest-to-get souvenir patch is from the International Space Station. Apart from the scientists who crew the space station, only a select few extremely wealthy tourists have been able to afford the trip into space to enjoy the ultimate view—the Earth slipping by 250 miles below and the rest of the universe beyond.

Okay, so a scutelliphilist goes to a resort, finds a patch, and brings it home in triumph; mission accomplished. But what is the patch? Is it art? Ephemera? I’d argue that patches—especially travel patches—can be seen as art in the context of popular culture. Often beautifully designed, many are marvels of intricate craftsmanship and full of fine detail. They tell the story of the place visited, through its heraldry, a landscape or a map. Above all, they jog the memory. Other patches—say, biker patches or rock music fan patches—are part of social history. They are documents and witnesses to changes in fashion and taste, the rise and fall of how we spend our leisure dollars.

Denim tells the tale of changing social trends, and a story of how we live and how society works—just a modern form of that shiny pebble the caveman brought back while he claimed he was out hunting.

As I look through my own collection of around 1500 patches, I recall a succession of childhood holidays in Britain, followed by teenage explorations of Europe, then more exotic tours of distant corners of the Earth when I was in my 20s and 30s, followed by a return to good old British seaside holidays with my own children. In their turn they have grown up, and I have entered old age, so recent patches reflect more specific choices, filling in the remaining blank spaces on the map now that I have visited every continent.

For me, scutelliphily is what it says; from Latin ‘scutellus,’ meaning ‘little shield,’ and Greek ‘phileein,’ meaning ‘to love.” In other words, the love or study of little shields. But the little shields are not lovable in their own right, although some do include beautiful detail. It’s their power that makes the collecting addiction enjoyable, the power to summon up instant memories of places far and near, the recollection of many friendships made in distant lands, and the evocation of happy vacations of times past.

Patch Images from the collection of Stephen Pewsey. Photographer: Mario Kroes. Model: Monika for Hair & Makeup: Dana Delaney at