Square History 1911 – 1933

The 1911 BSA Handbook lists fifty-seven “Merit Badges” and their requirements. Square Merit Badges were issued for 22 years, during those years the BSA added many new titles. By 1933 the number of merit badge titles available on square or rectangle cloth had increased to 105.

Merit badges designs were embroidered onto large pieces of “2 point 10 khaki” cloth. Once embroidered the large cloth was cut into strips of badges and then the strips cut into individual badges using a hand paper cutter or scissors. Thus the badges in this category vary in size and shape from very large 5” x 6” rectangles to 1 ½” square and any size combination in-between. Historians and the collectorate assigned the designation “Square” to Merit Badges in this category. The term “Square” is somewhat inaccurate in describing Merit Badges in the category considering many of the badges were issued as rectangles pieces of cloth. See figure 1 for examples of size and shape examples. In addition to the designation “Square”. All badges in the category are given the alphabet letter “A”.


After a Scout won (term used in early handbooks) a Merit Badge and received the cloth representation of the badge he tucked the cloth under to form a square, figure 2. The idea was to fold all the badges won uniformly and sew the onto the uniform left sleeve. Some scouts found creative ways to display their won badges. An early example is the use of the armband displayed in figure 3. In 1915 a Scout won the Invention Merit Badge by creating and patenting the false sleeve, figure 4. This made it easy for Scouts to display their badges won without sewing them onto the uniform. In 1924 Scouts attending the 1924 World Jamboree were given Merit Badge sashes to display the badges they had won. After the World Jamboree the BSA made sashes available to all Scouts and this became a popular way to display badges won, figure 5.


Production Standards

The BSA had standards for the production of the square Merit Badges. The following is a list of the Standards:

  1. The design shall be embroidered on the “Twill” or “Face” side of the fabric.
  2. When the design is properly oriented the twill shall be slanted approximately 30 degrees to the right
  3. The embroidery thread shall be silk
  4. The fabric shall have the BSA copyright protection image printed on the back
  5. The fabric shall be standard “2 point 10 khaki” uniform cloth
  6. The fabric color shall be within dye color tolerance

Standards 5 and 6 define the cloth weight and color. Cloth cost is directly correlated to the tolerances allowed to meet these standards. Square Merit Badges are found in a variety of colors from tan to green. To manage cost, the BSA allowed cloth manufactures to supply cloth with a range of dye colors. The stricter the dye color tolerance the higher the cost. The chart below shows the acceptable tolerances, figure 6.

During the time of Square Merit Badges the BSA was not the only “Scouting” organization. To prevent other organization from using BSA badges copyright protection was printed onto the back of badges. The printing is a series of lines and seals. The image below shows the copyright protection printed on badge backs, figure 7. Click here to leap to a complete explanation of “Copyright Protection”.



The “Continuous Loop” embroidery method was used for all square Merit Badges. The embroidery machines used to produce square merit badges were known as “Handmachine”. Basically, this hand-embroidery machine uses a pantograph to transfer the stitches. Each stitch is drawn out on a large-scale design and then its position is traced by an operator using a point on one arm of the pantograph. A series of needles responds to the movement of the pantograph arm. Each needle has an eye in the middle for the thread, and two sharp ends, figure 8. The needle is passed backwards and forwards through the base cloth using a pincer system (double-sided pincer wagons), so imitating the action and appearance of hand embroidery. Each color in the design is individually stitched (so all the blue parts, for example, are worked, and then the machine is re-threaded with a new color), until the design is complete. Click here to leap to a complete explanation of “Continuous Loop” embroidery on a “Handmachine”.


Square Sub-Categories

There are four major sub-categories within the Square Category. The four sub-categories are: “1911”, “Hand Guided”, Tape Guided” and “Depression Cloth”. Each of these categories is designated with a specific item id:

Sub-Category Badge ID
1911 Title-A1911
Hand Guided Title-AH
Tape Guided Title-AT
Depression Cloth Title-AD


The first sub-category is the “1911” sub-category. The badges in the 1911 sub-category all have two distinguishing features. The embroider added gauze to the back of the tan/khaki cloth Figure 9 shows 1911 gauzed back examples. The embroiderer used several colors of gauze; black, light blue & tan are known. The gauze’s sole purpose was to keep the cloth from pulling or puckering so consistency in color was not necessary. The second distinguishing feature is the green border ring of 1911 Merit Badges is embroidered in a counterclockwise direction, figure 10. The other three sub-categories have clockwise embroidered border rings, figure 11. The 1911 badges were embroidered on a “Handmachine” using a hand guided pentograph. See “Embroidery Types” for a full explanation of the “Handmachine”. Download a .csv list of the known 1911s here or click this link to leap to the 1911 category where you can view the badges and download a checklist with images.


The second sub-category of Squares is “Hand Guided”. In many collector publications this sub-category is designated “Teens” or “AA”. The Teens designation is a inaccuracy as many of the badges in this sub-category were produced starting in 1912 and continued into the early 1920s. We designate this sub-category “Hand Guided” because the badges were embroidered on a “Handmachine” using a hand guided pentograph. See “Embroidery Types” for a full explanation of the “Handmachine”. The primary differences between the 1911 and Hand Guided sub-categories are the embroiders discontinued the gauze on the back of the badges and the badge embroidered border ring are counterclockwise, figure 11. Adjusting thread tensions prevented the pulling and puckering of the tan/khaki cloth. Many of the early Hand Guided Merit Badges have a darker green embroidered border ring. The combination of using several embroiders and the hand guided process created many variations of each title. To date some 450 different significant design variations have been identified. Click here to leap to the “Hand Guided Embroidery” category where you can view the badges and download a checklist with images.


The third sub-category of Squares is “Tape Guided”. In 1919 the first Schiffli tape drive was imported into the United States from Switzerland. Beginning in 1920 embroiders began to add the new tape drives to their embroidery machines. These drives were very expensive thus the transition from hand pentographs to tape driven machines took several years. The new tape drives provided three main improvements: Consistency of Embroidery, Throughput Speed, and Reduction in Labor to produce badges. Badges in this sub-category are easily recognized by their design and border ring consistency. Click her to leap to a full explanation of the “Tape Drive”. Click here to leap to the “Tape Guided Embroidery” category where you can view the badges and download a checklist with images.

The fourth sub-category of Squares is “Depression Cloth”. This sub-category is due to a change in the base fabric. The embroidery process remained the same as the previous three sub-categories. Between 1911 and 1933 the official uniform cloth was defined as “2 point 10 khaki”. In 1933, during the height of the Great Depression, the BSA attempted to control uniform and badge cost by changing the base fabric standard to a cloth that used less total thread weight per yard. This cloth is designated “Depression Cloth” and thus the name of the subcategory. This cloth was only used in 1933 and 1934. The BSA abandoned using “Depression Cloth” in 1934 because the fabric failed under use and cleaning. Figure 12 compares “2 point 10 khaki” and “Depression Cloth”. Click here to leap to the “Depression Cloth” category where you can view the badges and download a checklist with images.


Embroidery Color Variations

Another source of variation from badge to badge is the embroidery thread color. Let’s begin with black. Look at the two cooking badges in figure 13. One has a black pot and the other brown. The official design and work order at the embroider calls for black not brown. So why is the brown pot instead of black? There are two possible answers; they ran out of black and substituted brown. The second and more likely answer is they used black over-dyed thread and the black dye faded and the under dye is now showing. It is common practice in thread making to over-dye. Over dying is a practice to reduce waste. If a thread maker dyes a batch of white thread yellow and the color is not correct the thread is NOT thrown away but can be over dyed to a darker color like medium green. If the medium green is not correct then the thread can be dyed a darker color again. The last stop for all color errors is over dye with black. The dyes used to embroider Square merit badges are not as color fast as modern dyes thus a variety of environmental conditions can cause the top color to fade and the under color to show.

For all colors in a design there were color standards and acceptable color ranges. When the design, for example specified medium green the acceptable thread color could vary from a light medium green to a dark medium green, figure 14. This color variation could occur within the batch of badges or batch to batch.

Over dyed threads presents the greatest challenge to classifying different varieties. As time passes and the environment effects the top dye color we  see a wide range of colors appearing for the same design. One way to know the design color is the result of under dye showing is the thread appears variegated, figure  15. This website makes no attempt to show all the possible color/shade variations do the over dye effect.


Design and Embroidery Errors

During the process of designing and producing Merit Badges two types of errors can occur and do. Design errors involve four titles; Stalking, Insect Study, Weather  and Beef Production.

The 1912 Stalking design was a leaf, there was only one small run of approximately 6 of these badge made and the design was changed in 1913 to a cougar. In 1923 the first Insect Study merit badge was a spider design, The BSA realized the design error and changed the design to an Aphid in 1925. In 1927 The BSA introduced the Weather Merit badge. During the design and development the title of the badge was to be Meteorology. The artist that designed the first badge created a design of a meteor traveling through space. The badge name was changed to Weather prior to being released. Tthe meteor design was produced and awarded until a new design of a weather vane was produced and released in 1929. The last square design error occurred in 1928 when the BSA introduced the Beef Production merit badge with a steer with horns design. In 1933 the BSA corrected the design error by changing the design to a cow without horns.  

Embroiderers of merit badges have quality standards and perform inspections. Occasionally badges with defects are missed by inspectors, and were shipped to the BSA. These defective badges were then issued. The errors that did not meet the BSA standard are classified into five distinct categories.