The City Seal and Flag of Philadelphia Reflect the Twin Visions of William Penn
The city seal and flag of Philadelphia represent two fundamental visions of the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania,
– namely, peace and plenty. The heraldry of the city seal and flag – and how they have evolved, since the 17th century - is a fascinating tale. Take this journey into the symbols and allegorical meanings, contained in the city seal and flag of Philadelphia, America's most historic city.
The City Seal and Flag of Philadelphia - A History, From 1683 to the 21st Century
To see the current City Seal and Flag of Philadelphia, please click the following link for the image -
To see the historical evolution of the City Seal and Flag of Philadelphia, as well as a version of it on the Rocky steps of the
Philadelphia Museum of Art
- and at the bottom of its page, the 1821 Thomas Sully painting described below - please click the following link:
(Note: we're using lay terms to discuss the heraldry, not the formal ones, for ease of communication.)
1682 - Penn founds the colony of Pennsylvania, which consists of three counties - Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester. Each county has a slightly different coat-of-arms, based on that of the Penn family - who were members of the British nobility.
1683 - The following year witnesses the first-ever city seal of Philadelphia, based on the Penn coat of arms:
The Penn coat-of-arms was a silver shield with a black horizontal bar across its center; on the bar were three silver balls of equal size.
Apart from the obvious connection of the charges in the arms with agriculture and commerce, each of them derives from symbols used in Pennsylvania prior to independence. Under the Penn proprietorship, each county used a seal with the shield from the Penn arms (Argent on a fess sable three plates) surmounted by a distinctive crest. The crest for Philadelphia County was a ship; that for Chester County a plow. The wheat sheaves are generally ascribed to Sussex County, once part of Pennsylvania but by the time of the Revolution part of Delaware. (Sussex is also represented by a garb in the arms of Delaware.) In addition, the arms of the City of Philadelphia adopted in 1701 had both a ship and a garb as well as other charges.
Source: The American Heraldry Society, State/Arms of Pennsylvania -
The Philadelphia version had this shield, with the only change being that there is what appears to be a crescent moon on the top, silver section of the shield, above the black bar - and an anchor surmounting the entire shield. We believe that the anchor was intended to represent "hope", as it is frequently used as a heraldic symbol for hope. It also could reflect the city's location on the Atlantic seaboard and its location along the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River.
It was in the form of a circle, with the surrounding text reading:
PHILA - WILLIAM PENN - PROPRIETOR AND GOVERNOR
1701 - Less than two decades later, the city seal of Philadelphia changes radically on the advent of the 18th century - much like the city itself. Penn had officially granted a charter to the city of Philadelphia - as opposed to Philadelphia County, of which it was a part (today, they are identical, once more). In fact, the 50th anniversary of this Charter in 1751, was the original purpose for the acquisition of the State House Bell - what we know today as the
... The Penn family coat of arms was no longer the basis for it - perhaps a barometer of the Penn family's diminishing influence. In fact, there were no elements left of it. The new text surrounding the seal read simply:
SEAL OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA - 1701
The new shield was quartered, accordingly:
The top left quarter - two hands clasped in friendship - keeping with the Quaker principle of goodwill, not only among European settlers but with the Native Americans;
The top right quarter - a wheat sheaf - reflecting Pennsylvania's incredibly fertile soil for agriculture;
The bottom left quarter - the scales of justice - the importance of law and equity in all dealings;
The bottom right quarter - a triple-masted sailing ship - symbolizing the city's booming port and maritime commercial trade.
1789 - The City Seal of Philadelphia Takes Its Modern Form
1789 - The city seal of Philadelphia is once more radically altered. It seems appropriate, given how much circumstances had changed since the beginning of the 18th century. The American colonies had won their independence from Great Britain, the U.S. Constitution had just been ratified, and Philadelphia was preparing to serve once more as the national capital for a decade, while the new Federal City was being constructed on the Potomac River.
This city seal, remarkably, is very similar to that used today.
It is once more a circle, and the surrounding text reads:
SEAL OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA
However, the quartered shield that had been used throughout the 18th century, has now been completely overhauled.
An element of the Penn coat-of-arms was revived, in that there was once more a shield with a large horizontal bar across the center.
In the top section of the shield, over the bar, was now a plough - once more representing agriculture. In the bottom section of the shield, under the bar, was the triple-masted sailing ship, although this time heading east (the 1701 version of the sailing ship faced west, which would seem more logical, since one had to sail west over the Atlantic Ocean to reach Philadelphia).
There were three other major additions:
Surmounting the shield was an arm holding the scales of justice.
Most significantly, though, were the brand-new additions - two female, allegorical figures, flanking the shield, while turned and facing each other. Both were dressed in the draped,loose flowing clothing of ancient Greece and Rome. They reflected classical symbolism, which was a profound intellectual influence during the Age of Enlightenment. (Another classical element was the use of Roman numerals for the first time in the seal - MDCCLXXXIX - meaning 1789.)
The female figure on the left represents Peace, as she wears an olive leaf crown on her head - the ancient Greek symbol of peace. Her left hand is hidden behind the shield, while in her right hand, she holds a scroll with a grid on it - clearly, the original 1682 street plan of Penn and his chief surveyor, Thomas Holme - and which is still in use today.
Why does the street map in her right hand reflect peace?
Penn, since he planned to live peaceably with Native Americans, deliberately designed the city without fortifications. He also wanted a symmetrical grid pattern to reduce the possibility of fire, which was a very big problem in European cities, with their alleys and warrens and dead-ends. London had suffered the ravages of the Great Fire of 1666, when Penn was living in England, and it instilled him a desire, that Philadelphia never be burnt and suffer the same fate.
The female figure on the right represents Ceres or "Plenty", the ancient Roman goddess of the harvest (and from whom we derive the word "cereal"). In her left hand, she holds the cornucopia, the symbol of agricultural abundance and plenty. Unlike Peace, Ceres holds her right hand in front of the shield, not behind it.
The Thomas Sully Painting - Arms of the City of Philadelphia
1821 - The artist Thomas Sully is commissioned to paint a portrait of the new city seal of Philadelphia, using real women as models for the classical allegorical figures of Peace and Ceres - titled Arms of the City of Philadelphia. It is hung in the Mayor's Court, in the former Supreme Court Chamber.
Sully's portrait was a big hit - so much, in fact, that it eventually graced the walls of the Assembly Room in
- later in the 19th century. The portrait remains today in the collection of
Independence National Historical Park
Noteworthy is the fact that the two women are not facing each other in the painting, in the same way they do in the city seal of the time. The model for Peace is looking directly at the viewer, not turned to the side; the model for Ceres is facing away from the shield, with her right profile visible. But the symbols are the same - Peace holds the scroll with the city street grid, while Ceres holds the cornucopia.
Source for Sully painting - Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, Russell F. Weigley, etc., p. 210.
1874 - The city seal of Philadelphia is changed for the final time. (One reason may be the fact that in 1854, two decades earlier, the city of Philadelphia and Philadelphia County were merged and became coterminous, as they remain today.)
There are several changes to the 1789 version, and the 1821 Sully painting.
A motto has been added, which had never previously been present:
which means, translated, "let brotherly love continue". (The original source was the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 13, verse 1.)
The female allegorical figures have also changed their direction. Both Peace and Ceres now directly face the viewer.
There is also a mysterious change to the scroll being held by Peace, the cause of which we still have not yet determined.
In the 1821 painting, Peace still holds the scroll with the city map. But by 1874, the scroll no longer has the city map grid - instead, there is a throwback to the original city seal of Philadelphia, all the way back in 1683...
You may remember, above, that the 1683 seal had an anchor surmounting the shield. The anchor has now reappeared on the seal, on the scroll being held by Peace, replacing the street grid - and the anchor is making its first reappearance on the city seal in nearly two centuries.
An anchor, in heraldry, is traditionally a symbol of "hope". This makes complete sense, that Peace would be holding a symbol of hope. However, we don't yet know why it was changed, or when. But this 1874 version of the city seal of Philadelphia has remained to the present day.
The City Seal and Flag of Philadelphia
The city seal and flag of Philadelphia are stipulated by an official act of the Philadelphia City Council:
(1) The device of the City Seal shall be:
ARMS -- On a blue field, a fess golden between a plough above and a ship in full sail below; both proper.
CREST -- A right arm, nude, embowed, couped at shoulder, holding a pair of scales; all proper.
SUPPORTERS -- Two females, standing full face, the one on the right side of the shield habited white and purple, crowned with an olive wreath; in her right hand a scroll, charged with an anchor; all proper; the one on the left side habited white and blue; in her left hand a cornucopia, proper.
MOTTO -- PHILADELPHIA MANETO.
(2) The seal of the Mayor of the City shall contain the words and letters on a riband, like the first seal adopted by the corporation -- Seal of the City of Philadelphia -- and shall have a diameter of 2¼ inches.
As for the City Flag:
(1) The City Flag or Standard shall be of bunting or silk material in the above colors and shall be 10 feet long and 6 feet wide, or in similar proportion. The flag shall be divided vertically in 3 equal parts, of which the first and third shall be azure blue and the middle pale golden yellow. Upon the later shall be blazoned the City arms, as upon the City seal. (Emphasis added.)
What we are still trying to determine, is why azure blue and golden yellow were selected as the colors. The only explanation that we have currently found:
The first European settlers in the area were not from the British Isles, or Germany, but Swedes. And since azure blue and golden yellow are the colors of the flag of Sweden, the choice was made as a tribute to the early Swedes.
This could be true, and since we currently have no other theories to go on, it is our - tentative - conclusion. But if we figure out the answer to this, or any other question on the city seal and flag of Philadelphia, we'll post it.
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