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:


  1. "... and was used to identify the original bearer, like a Social Security number today."

    I don't know what planet they live on, but I'm sure Lord Lyon Innes of Learney would have loved to live there, too.