Belt Plates: Introduction and Dating
During the last half of the 19th century most Spanish soldiers, both Peninsular and colonial, wore metal belt plates that displayed either a unit number or initials, or the emblem of their branch of service. This practice began, in a limited fashion, in the late 18th century. Belt plates became more or less a universal Spanish uniform accessory during the second quarter of the 19th century when the army began to replace cartridge boxes and edged weapon holders carried by shoulder slings with accoutrements held on a waistbelt with suspenders supporting the weight. In general, these plates were rectangular with clipped or slightly rounded corners. They were made in brass or a silver colored white metal, like nickel, depending on the button color of the branch for which the plate was intended. Numbers, initials and emblems could be either embossed, applied, pierced or engraved. Often, but not always, these emblems mirrored the insignia worn on the uniform collar, or contained a major element of that insignia. Some of the designs remained unchanged throughout the period and beyond. This can make determining the age of some plates problematic.
Little information has been found documenting the construction of these early plates. From observations made of belt plates that are known to be souvenirs of the Cuban and Philippine wars, some conclusions can be made about which examples date from the colonial era and separating those that are unquestionably from a later era. The difference between pre and post 1900 plates, I believe based on these observations, can be determined from the methods used to attach the plate to the belt.
The following conclusions about dating belt plates by their attachments on the reverse are purely my personal assumptions based on the examination of the artifacts and their provenance alone. If documentation exists either confirming or refuting my conclusions, I would be very interested in seeing it and adjusting the data where warranted.
All standard Spanish enlistedmen's belt plates have a catch on the reverse, generally on the left side as viewed by wearer, which engages a metal loop on one end of the leather belt. On the plate's opposite end is a standing loop through which passes the other end of the belt. This standing loop is generally made of stout brass round barstock, but occasionally iron bar mounted into flat brass posts is used. This last variant is mostly found on plates originating from the Philippines. On many plates found among the souvenir record this standing loop does not have any added tongues. The belt end is simply passed through the loop, then through a separate brass loop. The belt is then turned back on itself and again passed through the standing loop. This method holds the plate firmly to the belt and allows the size to be adjusted.
A typical catch hook on the reverse of a belt plate alongside of a cast brass belt end loop which it engages.
Left: A Model 1886 infantry belt plated with a simple standing loop. Right: An infantry plate from the Philippines with an iron bar on two brass flat posts.
Left: A Model 1886 Cazadores plate attached to its original leather belt using a separate cast brass loop as a retainer. Right: A similar loop shown on its own.
Another attachment method found on colonial belt plates is the addition of one or two short brass or iron wire tongues on the standing loop. These tongues match-up to a series of holes pierced into the belt itself or a leather tab sewn on the reverse, in the fashion of German military belts, allowing the belt's size to be adjusted. While this second attachment method can be found on plates from all branches of service, they are most commonly found on Civil Guard, engineer, and artillery plates, as well as plates originating from the Philippines.
Left: A Civil Guard plate showing the standing loop with a single brass tongue. Right: An engineer's plate with double tongues.
A detail from a photograph of cadets from the Infantry Academy in Toledo taken in 1897. It shows an accoutrement belt and the reverse of a plate with a single tongue on a belt with an adjustment tab.
Following the end of the Spanish American War, probably sometime between 1908-1914, the old sliding loop attachment was replaced by adding a permanently affixed long bar to the standing loop on the back of the plate. At first these bars were made of cast brass, later these were made of heavy iron wire. Using this system, the end of the belt passes through the loop and under the bar. It is then wrapped over the bar and passed through the loop again and pulled tight. This system was universally used throughout most of the 20th century.
Two post-colonial belt plates showing the attachment bar. Left: A post-1908 Model 1886 plate with a square cast brass bar. Right: A Model 1926 infantry plate with a round iron bar.
All material is Copyright 2006 by William K. Combs. No portion may be used without permission.