The death of a symbol

Yesterday Jon showed me a fantastic historical collector’s item that he owns. It is a bronze “Boy Scout” token created by the Excelsior Shoe Company in 1910.

Boy Scout Token: FrontThe Excelsior Shoe Company took advantage of the opportunity to associate their advertising with the new Boy Scout movement that began in 1910.  They created a “Boy Scout” shoe, and issued commemorative tokens between July 1910 and January 1914.  The tokens were manufactured by Schwaab Stamp & Seal Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Whitehead & Hoag Company of Newark, New Jersey. The token that Jon has is one of the first ones issued, from 1920.  According to one website that has information about these coins, this is a “Version 2” coin in the series that was released by the shoe company. You can see the “Boy Scouts” label in the arc above the picture of the boy in the hat riding the horse.

Now, remember your history. This was 1910. A lot of things were different in 1910 than they are today, and one of them was a particular symbol that everyone is familiar with.

Boy Scout Token -  BackThe back of the coin features a number of “good luck” symbols from various traditions and various cultures. You will notice an tiny horseshoe, a tiny four-leafed clover, a tiny wishbone, and a set of what looks like Egyptian hieroglyphs. But the centerpiece, as you can see, was the swastika. This makes perfect sense: originally this was an Asian / Eastern symbol of good luck. It was only later (certainly later  than 1910) that it was abducted by Hitler… presumably because he wanted his party to have good luck. Unfortunately for both him and the symbol, instead of the luck rubbing off on the Nazis, the evilness of the Nazis rubbed off on the symbol.

When I say “rubbed off,” all I mean, of course, is that nobody can use this symbol any more.  In much the same way that the “Ghost Busters” movie forever ruined the phrase “Who you gonna call?”, the Nazis  have forever ruined the poor, otherwise-innocent little swastika. It can never be used again, without calling up its now primary association.

I don’t have strong feelings about the ruined symbolic status of the swastika. It’s not like there is any compelling reason that it should be “revived” or that culture would benefit by us somehow trying to “reclaim” its meaning back to its original “good luck charm” status. History is always mutating, for better or for worse, the meanings of different symbols in society. C’est la vie.  Or, I suppose in this case more accurately, c’est la guerre.

But one of the reasons I love this coin is that it acts as a reminder that symbols are exactly that: mutable cultural things. No matter how strong the meaning of a symbol in today’s society (and in this particular example, it is hard to imagine a stronger negative meaning), it has a history and in some ways the meaning of a symbol is pushed onto it by history, culture, and often happenstance events. After all, if Hitler and the Nazi movement had never risen to power, and World War II had never happened, how many swastika “Good Luck Tokens” might we still see around us today?

It reminds us that the world that we live in now, at this moment, is not the only possible world. That is something worth remembering.