Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Heraldry Today?

I sometimes get asked the question why anyone would want or need to use heraldry today. (In my presentation entitled “An Introduction to Heraldry for Genealogists,” I preemptively try to answer this question with several quotes from different individuals as to why they have decided to acquire and use a coat of arms.) A recent (July 20, 2011) news story in the Uttoxeter Advertiser in England discusses the recent consideration by the town of Uttoxeter about obtaining a coat of arms, and the reasons why they might want one.

Unsurprisingly enough, it seems to be mostly about what those in the marketing business call “branding,” creating a consistent visual identity that can be quickly and easily recognized and associated with, in this case, the town of Uttoxeter.

Town Councillor and local historian Hugh Montgomery notes that: “We are one of the only councils of this size which doesn’t have a coat of arms — [the town council of] Ashbourne does for example.” “Why does Ashbourne get the Highland Gathering? One of the reasons is that they have a coat of arms[;] it is one of the first things you see when you go there.” “[A] coat of arms is something long-lasting that would still be around in 500 years.”

Deputy mayor Councillor Martin Blencowe said a coat of arms may be an ideal way to promote the town. “If we are trying to push and promote Uttoxeter it seems the ideal way to do it.”

Although the members of the town council were concerned about where the money to pay for a grant of arms might come from (a grant from the College of Arms for a town runs somewhere in the vicinity of £6,000, at current exchange rates just a little under US$10,000), they have agreed to formally petition for a grant of arms for the town.

You can find the full story on-line at:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Trying to Put Lipstick on a Pig in a Poke

If you will pardon me mixing my metaphors there in the title.

There’s an article dated July 29, 2011 in the on-line edition of the Daily Pilot of Costa Mesa, California, about a couple who run what many of us deprecatingly call a “bucket shop” for names and arms at the Orange County Fair. It’s a sympathetic article, discussing how Russel and Diana Oberlies' started out selling photo mugs twenty years ago and eventually moved into articles with the history of given names, then surnames, and eventually into “family crests” by 1995.

They use a database to look up surnames, and then cross reference with books they keep in their booth. The article notes they spend their free time researching online and reading 16th Century books on CD-ROM. "You have to go back that far to get accurate stuff on coat of arms," Diana said.

Really? Somehow I doubt that. “The writers of medieval heraldic treatises – the earliest of these ([the Dean Tract]) dates from the fourteenth century – did not always reflect actual practice, but fantasized about it or rationalized matters, often to an astonishing degree.” (Gerard J. Brault, Aspilogia III: The Rolls of Arms of Edward I, Volume I, p. 72) So I guess it depends upon what your definition of “accurate” is.

According to the article, for the Oberlies, it's exciting to learn the stories behind the “family crests.” (Really, I wish they’d stop using that term!) Each coat of arms is unique (well, mostly, I suppose, at least in theory, but try telling that to Scrope, Grosvenor, and Carminow, each of whom bore the arms Azure a bend Or!) and was used to identify the original bearer, like a Social Security number today, Diana said. They pass along as much knowledge as they can to their customers. (At $34 to $399 per item, I should hope so!) "When the customers walk away," Diana said, "we want them to learn as much as they can, so they can walk away knowing a little bit about that name."

The full article, with a small picture of the Oberlies in their booth, Heraldry by Oberlies, can be found on-line at:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Heraldic History of the Big Apple

There’s a great article that I recently ran across over at the blog Manhattan Unlocked: The Unbelievably Rich and Inordinate History of Manhattan. The specific post was uploaded on December 5, 2010, and is entitled “Decoding the Seals of the City of New York.” It’s a great article, profusely illustrated, and gives the history of the current seal of the City as well as its long history and the changes (and errors) that have been made to it over the years.

The coat of arms, centrally placed on the seal, might be blazoned (they were never officially granted by any granting body of heralds) as: Argent the sails of a windmill set salitirewise between in pale two beavers statant and in fess two flour barrels proper. (Though a Civil War era banner containing the arms has the field Azure (blue) and the charges Argent (white or silver). And I’ve seen renditions where the field is Or, yellow or gold.) One depiction of the arms may be found on the Heraldry of the World website at:

I highly recommend that if you are at all interested in the meaning of the elements or in the history of the coat of arms and seal of what is probably the epitome of the American city, that you take the time to read this article. It can be found on-line at:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Oh, Dear, Not Again

Just when I begin to think that maybe we’re making some progress in educating people about heraldry, I run across a news story like this one published on August 27, 2011: “M[illenium] C[harter] A[cademy] students create coats of arms.” The school, in Mount Airy, North Carolina, had their students talk in groups “about their own constitution and how to translate that into a coat of arms.” Sounds like a good thing to do, right? Even the next part, “Students divided into teams to come up with colors and symbols for the coats of arms that would be meaningful to their groups” could be done well. But ...

Then someone apparently had read one of those “meanings in heraldry” pamphlets (or picked up something similar on-line). “They included ch[i]efs to represent being self-sufficiency and creativity, different colors to represent generosity, strength, peace and victory.” Finally, one of the groups “added a brownie at the top to symbolize sweetness and goodness.” (Okay, I can kind of see that.)

Still, though, I would have wished that they’d read the Most Frequently Asked Questions FAQ for the old rec.heraldry newsgroup, which can be found at and answers the question "My coat of arms contains a widget azure. What is the significance of a widget in heraldry?" (The MFAQ also answers the question, "My name is Smith, what are my arms?") I highly recommend the MFAQ for a short, but clear, discussion of these issues.

If you’d like to read the complete story about the MCA students and the emblems they created (one of the groups and their "coat of arms" is pictured above), with even more instances of meanings for various charges in these “coats of arms,” it can be found at:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Heraldry in Lufkin, Texas (Part 5 of 5)

Finally, there was a bit of heraldry at the hotel where I was stying in Lufkin, Texas, directly in front of the elevators on the first floor. There was a nicely framed print of a ruined abbey or church with an heraldic design below it. Accompanying the print is the following inscription:

To William Thursby, Esqr.
This Prospect is humbly Inscribed by
Your Obliged humble Servts,
Saml and Nathl Buck.

I don’t know that the “heraldry” here (immediately above) is anything more than a pretty, semi-heraldic design; indeed, it doesn’t even seem to be on a shield. But still and all, it seems to add a nice touch to the display.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

It’s “devoid of heraldic devices”

But, but, it’s not!

In a news article on September 14, 2011 in the drinks business on-line newsletter, entitled “Fairview Celebrates Workers With Rebrand” (, Fairview of South Africa has rebranded itself with a new, allegedly non-heraldic, logo. It is, however, one that looks very much like an achievement of arms (though placed on an oval rather than the standard heater shield shape.

Fairview owner Charles Back said that he had been working on the redesign for a little over a year and the new emblem incorporates everything the farm is involved in. He believes the new logo to be the only one in South Africa that visibly makes reference to farm workers.

A press release from Fairview stated: “The crest [they mean the oval, or shield] which forms the heart of the new label is unpretentious and devoid of heraldic devices, ribbons or shields. It has a distinctive agricultural feel and conveys the essential elements that encompass Fairview.” (emphasis added)

The quartered shield includes a key, a basket press, an olive tree and a scroll, which are said to represent the Back family values, the importance of family, and growth and the artisanal nature of vintning and cheesemaking. The crest is an escallop between three stars, taken from the imagery on the gable of the Fairview manor house, completed in 1722.

In other words, it’s everything that heraldry is and is supposed to be, but it’s “devoid of heraldic devices” because, you know, that might be seen as "pretentious" or something. Phooey! It’s heraldic.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Heraldry in Lufkin, Texas (Part 4 of 5)

There was some more heraldry on a memorial to area peace officers who died in the line of duty.

First off is the coat of arms of the State of Texas, consisting of the “Lone Star” within the wreath of live oak (to dexter, your left) and laurel (to sinister, the right as you are looking at it).

There were also two examples of a police badge “shield” with a flower in bend sinister surmounting it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Heraldry in Lufkin, Texas (Part 3 of 5)

There was also some pseudo-heraldry in downtown Lufkin, Texas. In this case, it was the coat of arms-like logo of the Law Office of Paul A. Robbins.

The crest here (above the helmet) reminds me of nothing quite so much as the crest of the Dukes of Hamilton (below), a saw cutting through the trunk of a tree issuant from a crest coronet.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Heraldry in Lufkin, Texas (Part 2 of 5)

Continuing my way down the street there, out behind the U.S. Courthouse in Lufkin I found another example of federal "heraldry". In this case, it was a shield-shaped "keep out" sign of red, white and blue.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Heraldry in Lufkin, Texas (1 of 5)

Having arrived in Lufkin, Texas with some time to spare, I decided to head on downtown into the city center to see if I could continue to prove my thesis that “you can find heraldry everywhere.” And, once again, the evidence supported the thesis.

Here we have the United States Courthouse, with the obverse and reverse of the Great Seal in a pair of roundels flanking the entrance on its facade.

The obverse, of course, has the arms of the United States on it. (Both obverse and reverse are also found on the US$1 bill.)

What a great, and appropriate, use of heraldry.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

East Bound and Down

I was driving down to Lufkin, Texas, about three and a half hour’s drive southeast of where I live hear near Dallas, to participate in a three-day genealogy conference at Angelina College. On my way I was passed by a tractor-trailer rig which was carrying two large enclosed trailers. On the doors of the tractor, and on the sides of the trailers it was hauling, were the coat of arms-like logo of the Union Pacific railroad company. Since I’m not into attempting to drive at high speed and take photographs at the same time, believing that the results would in all likelihood be somewhat less than optimal, I was lucky enough to pass by him a little later when he stopped at a gas station and restaurant. So I pulled in, grabbed my camera, and took a few quick shots.

I’ve written about this logo before; two years ago I found a depiction of it in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. ( version found in Omaha, however, was not colored. Here, as you can see, we have full-color versions of the UPRR shield/logo.

The logo is basically the arms of the United States, but with the tinctures of the shield reversed (paly gules and argent - red and white - instead of paly argent and gules - white and red). And, of course, there’s the addition of the lettering on the blue chief.

Still, it goes to show that not only can you find heraldry everywhere, sometimes it will find you!