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Antiheraldry: Seals and Crests

Last modified: 2013-12-09 by rob raeside
Keywords: seals | crests |
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In the absence of any central heraldic authority in the US, states, counties, and municipalities are generally free to adopt their own symbols as they see fit. In almost every case, the first thing to be addressed is a seal, since it is needed to authenticate the documents that are any government's lifeblood. The seal itself, of course, is the metal die that is used to imprinted into the paper, wafer, or wax, but I will use the term "seal" from here on to refer to the design that is engraved on that piece of metal.

The central designs on some of these seals are more or less in line with classical European heraldry--the obverse of the US seal, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Hawaii, Colorado, and a few other states, plus some counties (Fairfax and Loudoun, Virginia, and Montgomery, Maryland, for example) and cities (such as New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh). So far, so good--the coat of arms looks like a conventional coat of arms (shield, maybe crest, supporters, scroll, and compartment) and the seal is the coat of arms with rings, names, mottoes, etc. around it.

Some states, counties, etc., however, specifically rejected European-style heraldry at the same time they rejected the British monarchy and instead turned (as the French Republic did) to classical motifs for the designs of their seals. Examples of this type of design would be Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Still others, mostly in the Midwest and West, went for landscape designs that ranged from fairly simple and distinctive (Ohio, with garb of wheat, sheaf of arrows, and setting sun) to enormously cluttered with representations of every possible form of economic activity or geological form found in the state/county/whatever. Some of these landscapes were even placed on shield-shaped objects (Arizona) and equipped with crests and supporters (New York, Michigan).

Anyway, having adopted seals, there was a feeling that these entities also needed coats of arms. Three possible alternatives arose: design a separate coat of arms based on the seal (Vermont, Connecticut), design an entirely different coat of arms (Alabama, North Dakota, Texas), or follow the example of the states with heraldic-style devices and simply define the pictorial part of the seal to be the coat-of-arms. Given the political tugging that was often required before a seal could be adopted--making sure every group was adequately represented, a la the new Georgia flag--the last of these was often the path of least resistance.

Thus the confusion between seals and coat-of-arms. Legally, the circular designs on the Minnesota and Montana flags, for example, are the coat-of-arms, not the state seals, even if they don't look remotely like any coat-of-arms a European herald would recognize.

As for the frequent misuse of "crest," while it is a popular error, I don't believe any state, at least, refers to its coat-of-arms or seal as a crest.
Joe McMillan, 5 February 2001