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Taking It Personally: Town Seals

With just a little bit of reading between the lines about the meaning of them.

Right off the bat I have to say, "Thank You," to Sam Doran, a local historian who got me started on this whole kick. He came to the Board of Selectmen three years ago to tell us Lexington was using the wrong Town Seal. I already knew that, but I didn’t realize just how much there would be to this story.

It started out simply enough. The town was using any number of seals, all wrong.  Even that basic story is interesting. The town used a seal up until 1934, when the complaints about the quality of the artwork and the relevance of the central figure -- a farmer standing in his field with plow and musket at hand -- had grown to such a level that the selectmen commissioned a new seal, which was unveiled in 1935, just in time to use on the Town Report published that year.

Sam gave me a picture made from the original artwork for the 1935 seal and he and Town Clerk Donna Hooper showed me the original artwork. That is where another story begins, because there were slight differences in the two representations. It seems that the photograph could not pick up all of the intricacies of the artwork. It took me awhile to figure out that was one key to why we have so many versions of our Town Seal. Different media require different presentations and there is quite an art to developing artwork that will remain unchanged across a range of media. The selectmen, in 1935, approved a seal that was impossible to reproduce easily, so it changed. Then, as new technologies became available, the seal changed to accommodate them. It appears each new seal has been a variation of the last popular one, instead of going back to the original, so many of seals in use today bear only a slight resemblance to the original.

I started looking at old documents and realized that both the pre-1935 and post-1935 seals had all gone through many changes. In fact, the then brand new seal used on the Town Report published in 1935 is significantly different than the one approved by the Selectmen. Wow—the ink was hardly dry on the minutes for the meeting at which the new seal was approved and here it was being changed.

The solution seemed simple for this modern selectman: Put together a small group to figure out how to turn the intent of the Selectmen in 1935 into a usable seal for today, keeping in mind that it would be used on buildings, monuments, letterhead, police and fire vehicles, and a host of other things.

But then I ran into Marvin Bubie. Mr. Bubie is writing a history of the area based on the various town seals. I told him about the problems with the Lexington seal, assuming he would be surprised. He was not and here another, and maybe the most interesting, story emerged.

In England, and indeed throughout most of Europe, seals were the province of the King or Queen, so they were centrally produced and very closely monitored.  Deviation from the official seal was simply not something one did.

But in the New World, we were starting to think of ourselves as … well … Americans. Not many of us used that name, but we were starting to realize that, while we were culturally English, we were now building a new country. Our country.

A major difference between the British Army and the various colonial militias was that we had no central command and control. Ours was local, as so much of what we did was. I think that local spirit remains to this day. Our government remains largely local, so it should be no surprise that our seals are local as well. Mr. Bubie tells me that many of the town seals have changed many times and not just small changes like the Lexington seal has seen. The first thing we did with our local seals was to sort of gently put our thumb in the eye of the King, and then we changed them as our towns changed.

Mr. Bubie pointed out some interesting town seals. Danvers, for instance, has the following inscription on their seal: “The King Unwilling." Whatever could that mean? It turns out that Danvers wanted to split away from Salem and be a separate town, so they asked permission of the King. The King  took two years to make up his mind. A note was sent to Danvers which read “The King Unwilling,” meaning the answer was "No." So Danvers did the American thing. They simply ignored the King and ran their own town the way they wanted to run it. And of course they bragged about it just a little bit by making the King’s reply part of the seal. How American!

I cannot wait to read Mr. Bubie’s book, which is due out shortly. In the meantime, Lexington is planning to work on Sam Doran’s vision, which is to get back to something closer to the 1935 seal. On the other hand, I suspect we aren’t going to forget that we are New Englanders with a strong sense of community and maybe just a little residual distrust of anything that looks like a King.

Andrew Sylvia (Editor) June 01, 2011 at 03:02 PM
If you've ever seen Merrimack, New Hampshire's seal, I have a question for you .... what is that guy on the raft doing to that horse and what is going through that Native American's mind as he's looking at it?
Hank Manz June 01, 2011 at 04:05 PM
Great question, Andrew! Wikipedia is a great source for finding reasonable pictures of town seals. Often a town Web page carries a seal that is too small to be able to see the detail. Or just Google "Town Seal Danvers MA" for instance. There you will find a picture much like the one in the column, but you will also find out that the central theme is a tribute to "The Town Meeting. The purest of all democracies--The strongest of all citadels of civil liberty." Whew!
Denise J. Dubé June 01, 2011 at 04:59 PM
Fantastic, Hank! I can't wait to see the next derivation of the seal. As you told me months ago, the police station, Town Hall, and Cary Memorial all have different seals.
Andrew Sylvia (Editor) June 01, 2011 at 06:07 PM
Bad joke on my part, Hank. I'm from Merrimack and whenever I saw my hometown's seal, I always thought "Wait a second..." You have to see it to understand what I'm talking about. I can't find one of the good, newer versions of it, but here's one of the old versions of the seal. http://tinyurl.com/3letqop
Hank Manz June 01, 2011 at 06:30 PM
Actually I got it and thought it was funny. In fact, several other people thought so, too. And there are other hidden gems in our seals as well. There are many themes which recur when studying the history of New England and its settlements. One of them is how towns were formed. Another is the myths which grow up about them. Who did what and who said what makes for interesting winter chats around the wood stove. Mr. Bubie was right, I think, when he pointed out that town seals are a window into town history. A good start on all of this can be found at: http://www.danverslibrary.org/archives/creationdanvers/creationdanvers.html but you will find the same issues, controversies, and myths in abundance as you dig into the history of Lexington.
Don Walker February 01, 2013 at 10:43 PM
Hi, Tom. I plan on suggesting a radical change in our Town Seal and will soon be writing you and the other Town Seal Committee members. I'm almost finished with my research -- just a few more references to read. Stay tuned. Don Walker Lexington, MA
Patrick Ball (Editor) February 02, 2013 at 01:03 AM
Hi Don, I'm not sure which commenter you're addressing here. But I, as Lexington Patch's local editor, would certainly be interested in hearing your suggestions for changing the town seal. Please don't hesitate to contact me at patrick.ball@patch.com or 781-530-0029 to share your ideas. -Patrick Ball

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