1970S BELT BUCKLE HISTORY

Summary

The rise of the modern belt buckle took place in the early 1970s and can be attributed to a massive fraud scheme involving faked antique belt buckles. The unexpected popularity of these fake buckles among collectors and the general public led to the formation of a new fashion trend and emergence of an industry.

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"Rare" Deane & Adams Buckles

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Photo Caption: Front cover of the fraudulent collector's guide, Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates [1]

Note: I've included a formal citation of the book (bottom of this web page) for anyone that might try to find a copy, but remember that the publishing info and copyright dates were illegitimate.

In the late 60s and early 70s, rare and unusual belt buckles began turning up in pawn shops, gun shows, and flea markets. The buckles had stampings with dates from the late 19th and early 20th century from well-known manufacturers such as Tiffany & Co, E. Gaylord, Anson Mills, and Deane & Adams. On the front, the buckles were adorned with original artwork and names of household brands such as Coca Cola, American Express, and Wells Fargo. Frantic collectors were buying them up at prices as high as $200 in the mid-60s and early 70s—a hefty price tag equivalent to about $1,300 in today’s dollars (1970 to 2021 dollars). The origins of these buckles remained mysterious and unknown until they were validated by a collector’s guidebook Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates by Percy Seibert [1]. The 90-page hardbound publication was illustrated with photographs of many of the belt buckles in question along with a discussion of historical context and other documentation, such as photographs of belt buckle casting molds. Unbeknownst to collectors, the entire book and its contents were an intricate lie, maliciously constructed to fool unsuspecting buyers. The guidebook’s author, publisher, and “historical information”, were all fabricated as part of an elaborate scheme to help sell fake belt plates... of which, there were now tens of thousands in circulation.

Belt Buckle Fraud

The scheme behind the faked buckles began to unravel in the early 1970s when J. Duncan Campbell, an advisor to the Smithsonian Institute and expert in historical belt plates, purchased a copy of Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates. To his surprise, the book contained writing plagiarized from Campbell’s own works for the Smithsonian. He documented his findings in his own book in 1973, titled New Belt Buckles of the Old West.

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Excerpt from New Belt Buckles of the Old West

PLAGIARISM AND THE NON-EXISTENT COPYRIGHT

After careful study of Percy Seibert’s book I made a decision to spend all the research time necessary to document the truth and expose much that is false and misleading in its content. Several reasons compelled me to annotate the text and shed some light on these new buckles, but one is of personal importance. In the book’s very first pages I was amazed to read sentences and paragraphs precisely as I had written them in the Smithsonian Bulletin 235 (American Military Insignia) which I co-authored with Edgar M. Howell… Next, I noticed a copyright date of 1950, using words I had not written until 1962. This was a surprise that proves the book must have been written some time after the Smithsonian Bulletin appeared in 1963.

 

[2] New Belt Buckles of the Old West

J. Duncan Campbell

P. IX

The entire publication and the buckles it described were quite brazen, since Tiffany & Co.—a company frequently attributed to the fake buckles— never even produced belt buckles! Campbell’s meticulous study and de-bunking of the fraudulent work is documented in a page-by-page annotated version of Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates. In his investigation of the scheme, Campbell discovered the intricacies and great lengths the author had gone through to concoct the history behind the forged buckles. He even went so far as to create a fantastic and whimsical-sounding backstory for the pen-name/seudonym of Percy Siebert:

"Who is Percy Seibert, the man with the impressive record in South America as Commissioner General of Bolivian Railroads for the study of railways? So far, my inquiry to the Bolivian Government has failed to turn up any facts about him. I now feel confident we will learn nothing About him. Percy Seibert most likely is the pseudonym for one or more persons who cannot ever come forward to admit having written this book."

[2] New Buckles of the Old West

J. Duncan Campbell

P. 6

Identity of Percy Seibert Revealed

J. Duncan Campbell diligently deconstructed each page of Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates illustrating how and why each buckle could not be authentic historical pieces, but his suspicions about the the mystery author were ultimately wrong, and his identity was later revealed...

 

Campbell published an update to his investigation in Early American Life magazine, The Great Belt Buckle Fraud (1974) [3]. In the article, he described purchasing one of the fake buckles directly from a supplier in London, England called P. Supplies Co and his check was endorsed by one John R. Fairchild, Jr. He also obtained a catalog from the Deane & Adams company which noted it was a member of the Fairchild Organization. John R. Fairchild was ultimately realized as the perpetrator behind the scheme, and US Customs barred him from entering the United States in the late 70s [4]. As of 1999 he was living in Sweden, and additional research did not turn up any new information on the fraudster.

Another fake collector’s guidebook, Accoutrement Belt Plates (photographed right), was later released and weakly attempted to propagate the authenticity of Fairchild’s buckles [5]. It contains numerous obvious errors and unusual spellings which indicate it is also of English origin. Modern reprints of both Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates and Accoutrement Belt Plates can be purchased today. Original prints of the fake collectors books and Campbell's investigational piece, New Buckles of the Old West, turn up occasionally in online marketplaces but it is not known how many were published (My copies came from Ebay and Abe Books).

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Belt Buckle Rise in Popularity

John R. Fairchild's company, Deane & Adams Co, continued to operate and produced an unknown quantity of what can be referred to as “original fakes”. These buckles, intended to deceive and defraud, depicted real people, styles, artwork, and historical events, but their construction had no historical basis. The hinged wire loop soldered to the rear of each buckle was a feature not observed in authentic civil war period buckles. Consider one well-documented “original fake” as an example, the Lincoln Memorial buckle…

The buckle featured President Lincoln’s face in a laurel wreath, surrounded by military equipment, and with the inscription “In Memory of Our Dear President”. The back of the buckle has stampings claiming the design was approved my Mrs. A. Lincoln, the buckle was manufactured from captured heavy confederate guns, and that it was issued to all US congressmen (Duncan disproved all three of these claims in his book, P. XVIII). The buckles manufactured by Fairchild, dubbed “Fairchild originals” by collectors, can be recognized by the wide tab and loop-holder which were soldered to the back. The rapid spread and popularity of Fairchild’s designs inspired several American companies to form and begin producing copies of the Lincoln design and many other Fairchild buckles.

Companies including Bergamot Brass Works, MM Limited (now Great American Products), and Lewis Buckles, modified the construction of the Fairchild buckles by replacing the wide tab with a prong that was cast with the buckle plate or by a riveting a piece of hardware to the plate which held both the loop and prong in place.

Commercialization and Belt Buckle Industry

The commercial success of the early designs copied from John R. Fairchild was encouraging, and American buckle manufacturers quickly developed artwork and new designs to attract customers with interests outside of Americana and Military collectables. MM Limited found early success producing motorcycle-themed designs branded with names like Harley Davidson, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and other companies. Other popular themes in the early 70s included hippie culture, peace signs, marijuana, astrology, psychedelia, automotive, novelties, animals, fantasy artwork, Egyptian revival, and much more. The industry diversified quickly, and each manufacturer developed their own methods of construction and design.

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Photo Caption:

Left- Magazine article ad from the Lewis Buckle Company, Inc. based in Chicago, IL

Right- Store shelf display card for Triumph Motorcycle belt buckle

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Mail-order advertisements in newspapers and magazines were successful methods for marketing belt buckles throughout the 70s. Specialty stores, like car and motorcycle dealers, also found success promoting company-branded buckles on shelf displays. Soon buckles were also available in department stores and Sears catalogs. The heart of the retail business in the 1970s ultimately became pop-up vendors who would sell custom fit leather belt and buckle combinations at festivals, flea markets, and other public events. Craftsmen and artists soon saw the potential of buckles as a medium for artwork, and designers including David Yurman, Jack Boyd, Carl Tasha, Leoma Lovegrove, and Duncan Laurie created belt buckles which are now highly collectible. The Tech Ether Guild, a name widely known and respected among collectors, produced dozens of solid brass buckle designs in the 70s.

In the mid and late 1970s, manufacturers expanded into producing corporate designs for companies as promotional items and employee gifts. Belt buckles were created for major franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of The Rings, and the Marvel Universe. Similarly, belt buckles branded with popular bands and musicians were sold as keepsakes at concerts and through mail-order ads. A business that was inspired by fraudulent collectibles quickly evolved into a thriving industry, and belt buckles ultimately became an iconic element of 1970s fashion.

 

More information on individual manufacturers available here:

References

[1] Seibert, Percy. Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates. Reeses Press, 1950.

[2] Campbell, J. Duncan. New Belt Buckles of the Old West. 1973.

[3] Campbell, J Duncan. “The Great American Buckle Fraud.” Early American Life, Jan. 1974, pp. 60–64.

[4] Unknown Author. “The Lincoln Belt-Buckle Bandit!” The Rail Splitter, Jan. 1999.

[5] Unknown Author. Accoutrement Belt Plates. Published in Great Britain. Year Unknown.