Before the swastika was synonymous with evil, it meant good luck.
By Wendy Christensen, PhD
I found a 1917 advertisement for swastika jewelry while browsing through the NY Public Library Digital Gallery. The text reads in part:
To the wearer of swastika will come from the four winds of heaven good luck, long life and prosperity. The swastika is the oldest cross, and the oldest symbol in the world. Of unknown origin, in frequent use in the prehistoric items, it historically first appeared on coins as early as the year 315 B.C.
As this suggests, while the symbol of the swastika is most frequently associated with Hitler and Nazis during World War II, and is still used by neo-Nazi groups, the symbol itself has a much longer history. From wikipedia:
Archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates from the Neolithic period. An ancient symbol, it occurs mainly in the cultures that are in modern day India and the surrounding area, sometimes as a geometrical motif and sometimes as a religious symbol. It was long widely used in major world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Before it was co-opted by the Nazis, the swastika decorated all kinds of things. Uni Watch has tons of examples. Above you see it on a Finnish military plane and the uniform of a sports team. A reader, Felicity, sent in an image of a quilt:
My mom is a quilter and collects antique quilts (when she can afford them). She says that while in general, antique quilts and quilt-tops have gone up a great deal in price over the decades, there’s still one sort you can pick up for a song — swastika quilts.
It’s kind of sad to think of somebody in 1900 putting all that time and hand-stitching into a ‘good luck’ quilt that is now reviled.
All of these examples occurred before the Nazis adopted the swastika as their symbol (and changed it slightly by tilting it on a 45-degree angle).
Of course, the original meaning or usage of the swastika is beside the point now. Because it is so strongly associated with the Nazis, it’s impossible to use it now without people reading it as a Nazi symbol. And in fact it’s unimaginable that a group in the U.S. or Europe would use the swastika today without intentionally meaning to draw on the Nazi association and the ideas espoused by Hitler and his party.
Wendy Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University whose specialty includes the intersection of gender, war, and the media. You can follow her on Twitter.