This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
Well, not those seals, as in, mammals sunning themselves on rocks. We talk here of a heraldic emblem or insignia. New York City’s seal and flag celebrate their 100th birthday this week, and yes, beavers are always a big part of the story. The seal, in fact, could have looked quite like this:
Seals—pressed into wax to authenticate documents in previous centuries—were important elements that indicated that a city had “arrived.” This very early design dates from around 1630, barely a few years after a fort was established at the foot of Manhattan Island initiating the city of New Amsterdam. The 17th-century Dutch inscription on the document makes clear that this was a “proposed” coat of arms for New Amsterdam that was “not adopted.” The two rampant (that’s heraldry speak for creatures on a hind leg with forelegs elevated) beavers were rather outlandish, especially when one considers that supporters of heraldic shields are supposed to be regal and powerful. A third, more conventional, beaver sneaks in as well, atop the shield, but the faint writing reveals some confusion as it appears to read, “1 otter.”
The 1630 artist was nothing if not ambitious: New Amsterdam was not granted some form of municipal government until 1653 and only then asked its parent, the Dutch West India Company, for a seal; this was granted in 1654, and we are happy to report that the little beaver does keep his position atop the shield.
Both the 1630 proposal and the 1654 seal evoke the arms of the parent city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands with its white diagonal crosses, and both include the monogram signifying the Dutch West India Company. Prior to that, the seal of the larger provincial area of New Netherland was used; that consisted, yes, of a beaver, this time surrounded by wampum beads. Beavers, of course, represented the fur trade, so vital that skins, as well as wampum, were used as money, literally valued as so many Holland guilders in the 17th century.
All of this was reviewed carefully by a blue-ribbon City Art Commission committee appointed in 1914 to both commemorate the 250th anniversary of the installation of the first mayor and alderman under English rule on June 24, 1665,—another, not coincidental, anniversary we mark this week—and to adopt an official city flag, one that would bear a standardized seal in the center. Part of the committee’s work was to examine seal impressions on early documents, and they visited the New-York Historical Society for this purpose. Committee members could not locate a 1669 seal known to have been granted under English rule, but they assumed the beaver was a constant, since the creature shows up again on a subsequent 1686 seal. Windmills appear on this 1686 seal, as indeed, early maps show windmills dotting the city landscape. Accompanying the windmills on the shield are flour barrels, appropriate since New York had been granted an early, short-lived, monopoly on milling in the 17th century, a concession that helped put it on the commercial map. A sailor and a Native American hold up this shield topped by a crown. The 1784 post-Independence revision, not surprisingly, substituted an eagle for the crown and then inserted the English takeover date of 1664 instead of 1686. The date eventually proved to be a controversial choice, and it now reads 1625.
As the years and centuries had worn on, the seal representations deteriorated, so that in 1915, to justify their work in standardizing the seal—and perhaps to have a little fun—the committee added specific examples to this text describing the problem: “In woodcuts of the beaver these animals sometimes appear like dogs and sometimes like pigs with pointed snouts. The Indian is represented with a western war-bonnet on his head, or bald-headed, or with a cluster of feathers like a rooster’s tail…He shifts uneasily from the sinister [left] side to the dexter [right] side, and when he gets tired he sits down. The dexter supporter [the sailor] is equally unreliable in his conduct and more uncertain as to nationality and occupation…At times he is naked as if for a plunge overboard.” As for the eagle, “Generally he looks where he is going, but occasionally he looks backward to see if he is being followed, as has been his habit of later years.” This variation is indeed well documented on the Manhattan Unblocked website.
In citing the special need for consistency when the seal is being carved into municipal buildings, the city may have been locking the barn door after the horse had bolted, as the largest of these buildings, the grand Municipal Building, had just been completed in 1914. The architectural firm McKim, Mead, & White, sprinkled the interior with those non-standardized seals, as seen above in their working drawings for the elevators.
The committee took its work seriously enough to officially ask the New-York Historical Society for its support. They may have regretted that step as N-YHS’s reply was rather querulous, asking, “Shouldn’t the stripes on the flag be horizontal?” and creating a bit of a tiff in the newspapers. Despite the city’s firm response here, the city commission decided not to take offense, sending New-York Historical three official invitations to the flag-raising ceremony on June 24, 1915, and asking for donations to purchase a set of new flags for the public schools. N-YHS responded with $100, enough to fund flags for 21 specific schools across four boroughs, for which 32 thank you notes were received.
And, as the public schools close out the year, we wish students and faculty a relaxing summer vacation, one where they won’t be busy as beavers.