Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Great Seals I've Known

A blogger has certain responsibilities, not the least being the need to follow up when unctuous political figures convert something as forgettable as a state seal into an opportunity for moralistic grandstanding. In the same spirit as NPR's treatment of this important matter, I offer my own appraisals of selected state seals.

I begin with the observation that the people who designed state seals must have a lot in common with the people who designed NFL uniforms, color schemes, and team logos judging from the ungainly maximalism they tend to display. Behold the dizzying variety of things someone used every Crayon in the box to draw in these instances:

  • California: no fewer than four old-timey sailing schooners in a blue sea;mountains of assorted hues and sizes; a Trojan lady with a spear either sitting on some unseen thing or depicted on the way down to a seated position in the grass, shielding herself from a small bear and its meal of tiny footballs; a tiny prospector working a dangerous-looking pick-axe, not willing to face the portrait artist but mindlessly plying his trade; miscellaneous mining gear scattered over what might have been clear space; the word EUREKA floating in the sky beneath a bunch of stars for no good reason; a rope border encircling a boast of a "great" seal of California. Great my sweet ass! It's a visual nightmare! It should say, "The hellishly ugly seal of the state of California," and it should add, "please send us some money, as much as you can spare. We're collapsing."
  • Now gaze, if you can stand to do so, at the seal of Wisconsin. It features a floating banner stating "FORWARD" above a beaver perched slothlike on a stick floating above a seal-within-a-seal of garish yellow; the sub-seal is decked out with dangerous-looking farming supplies, an old-timey ship's anchor, and a disembodied arm clutching a hammer; below that sits a horn filled with fruit, a triangular formation of  smaller triangles (symbolizing, let's say, Wisconsin's famous love of triangles); a man on the left dressed in a Halloween costume of a 19th century sailor, holding a rope; on the right stands a man dressed as a firefighter who doesn't seem to understand the risks of loose-fitting natural fibers -- he seems to believe the garlic bulb on his hat brim will protect him from fire if his deadly pick-axe doesn't first; and once again, a boast of "great" where "hideous" would have been more apt. They drew all this but no cheese?
Make sure to review the state seal of New Jersey as a further illustration of the Wisconsin-California school of ugly maximalism; it features a winter cap on a stick and a few dozen things that are harder to describe, let alone account for.

Alabama points out a different way to go horribly wrong with a state seal -- confuse it with an illustrated guide to the state's significant waterways and bordering states that aren't Tennessee:
At least it doesn't call itself "great."

Last and least -- really, this has to be least -- the state seal of Washington, which appears to have taken its creators upwards of one minute of effort to conceive and execute:
It is tempting to read sarcasm in its matter-of-fact "the seal of the state of Washington." Imagine the scene: "Here, governor, here's your goddamn state seal," said the undersecretary of something-he-thought-was-more-dignified who was assigned with its creation. "It has the guy our state was named after right there in the center. You might recognize him from the dollar bill, asshole. I am going back to my squalid little office, if you can call it that, in Yelm. Fuck you. Don't call."

As much as I hate to admit it, Texas has a pretty nice state seal as these things go.


larryniven said...

Okay, is that Washington one serious? You're sure that's not an internet joke or something?

Dale said...

The Washington is taken straight from wikipedia, the world's definitive vault of trustworthy information. Isn't it awful?

I like within a stone's throw of Washington, so you might think I could validate it independently. But as it turns out, state seals don't appear to be widely used, nor considered important to the day to day life of the people these days. Most people can't draw their own state's seal from memory, and governors have been known to conduct entire press conferences without standing behind them.

Oh how this republic has degraded.

John Carter Wood said...

'Ungainly maximalism' indeed.

Good grief.

Those are horrendous. I'm pleased to find that my home state's seal is positively restrained in comparison.

Here in Germany, the individual states (Bundesländer) don't have 'seals' but they do have coats of arms (Wappen).

Your post made me consider them in a new light, as, perhaps with the exception of the one for Saxony-Anhalt, they're positively minimalist in comparison.

John Carter Wood said...

Though I have to admit, when I was a kid I always mis-saw that banner thingy that the eagle on the Illinois seal is carrying in its mouth as, well...something he was barfing up.

Which appealed very much to my little boy's brain, let me tell you.

Dale said...

JCW, You're right -- or, um, your younger self was right -- the eagle on the Illinois seal is clearly belching out that red ribbon.

And really, you can't blame an eagle for belching out a big red ribbon it swallowed upon mistaking it for the biggest, juiciest worm it had ever found.

So it makes a certain amount of sense, really.

John Carter Wood said...

Glad to see you agree with my ten-year-old self, who was clearly wiser than his years.

That eagle is so, totally, barfing up that ribbon.

As I would too, given the chance.

Anonymous said...

As a New Jersey resident, I rise in defense of the state seal - not great art, but not so terrible. It's also self-explanatory, since the two figures illustrate the motto. On the left you have a classical 18th C. representation of Liberty, with her Phrygian Cap or Cap of Liberty on a staff. Apparently the ancient Roman ceremony of manumission (freeing a slave) included such a cap worn by the new freeman. The Sons of Liberty put up Liberty Poles topped by Phrygian caps in public places during the pre-Revolutionary period. (In Delacroix' famous painting "Liberty Leading the People", she is wearing her cap; she shows up the same way on the famous bas-relief on the Arc de Triomphe.)

On the right is the Roman grain goddess Ceres holding a cornucopia of fruits of the earth. The 3 ploughs also stand for agriculture. The only even slightly obscure element is the horse's head above the helmet. But there's a strong horse-breeding tradition that goes back to Colonial times, so that may explain it. The whole design dates to 1777.

They didn't have emoticons, but they did their best.

Li'l Innocent