Emma Byrne ’17
As technology has improved and access to college applications increases, college admission has become more and more selective every year. High school seniors submit their accomplishments and goals to the black box process of admissions in hopes of receiving acceptance from the institutions that have become continually more exclusive and more treasured in the public’s mind. The most selective schools represent themselves as timeless and boast “exceptional undergraduate instruction” and “richly historic” campuses (“About Brown University” 2015). The esteem that elite colleges and universities currently enjoy seems inherent to those attending now, but was actually carefully cultivated over the history of their development. For many, such as Brown University, it is the creation and strict control over images like the seal that have contributed heavily to the expanding spheres of recognition and admiration within which they operate. The function of Brown University’s seal has changed with the evolution of the University’s image and mission, but has always stood to represent Brown’s unified will.
In the Charter of 1764, which outlines the rules and logistics of the College of Rhode Island, later to be known as Brown University, there is mention of a “Publick Seal to use for all Causes, Matters and Affairs” (Catalogue 1911; 32). While this description of the seal seems rather vague in its determination of the seal’s function, it clearly highlights that the seal is to be used to signal official matters, denoted by the capitalization of “Causes, Matters and Affairs”, and that the seal is meant to provide a unifying image of the institution in the public sphere. The Charter also mentions that the College will “confer Degrees by Diplomas, and authenticate them with the Public Seal of the Corporation” (Catalogue 1911; 37). Both of these roles of the seal could be seen as socio-technic and ideo-technic functions as defined by Lewis Binford and discussed by James Deetz in In Small Things Forgotten, An Archaeology of American Life, as the seal takes on a ceremonious role in legitimizing formal proceedings, and socially unifies the College under a single image. The need for a succinct way to represent the College on tangible items such as diplomas could also be considered a technomic function, as it would be logistically difficult for the institution to convey a unified opinion otherwise, particularly as student and faculty numbers grew (Deetz 1977; 91-2).
Despite this proclamation in February of 1764, the first seal of the College was not commissioned until the second annual meeting of the College’s Corporation, which occurred in September of 1765 (Guild 1867; 61). One day before the meeting was held, the College had its first student enrolled, William Rogers, who would remain the only student for the next nine months (Bronson 1914; 35-6). Perhaps prompted by the existence of a student body, Reverend Samuel Stillman ordered the seal to be created (Guild 1867; 61) and for it to display busts of King George III and Queen Charlotte, the current rulers of England, facing each other in profile (Bronson 1914; 35). Encircling the seal is a motto in Latin which reads, “The Seal of the College in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in America” (Annual Report 1906; 25). The seal was crafted in Boston, was made of silver (Bronson 1914; 520) and cost ten pounds and thirteen shillings, sterling (Annual Report 1906; 25). The choice of image clearly reflected both the College’s, as well as the Colonies,’ allegiance to England at the time. By displaying royalty on the seal, and producing the seal in silver, the College of Rhode Island was deliberately associating itself with an image of prestige and tradition, two ideals the College seems to have hoped to embody.
The first seal continued to be used until 1782, at which point the Revolutionary War had ended and the Colonies were no longer ruled by England (Bronson 1914; 76). This momentous event in American history also signified the need for a new image on the seal of the College of Rhode Island. At the annual meeting of the Corporation in 1782, a committee was appointed to “break the old seal of the College” (Guild 1867; 62). The breaking of the first seal seemed to be a symbolic way of rejecting Great Britain’s rule and also a functional way to ensure it would never be used again, either in error or as a deliberate statement. The same committee created to break the old seal was also ordered to commission a new seal, but this process was evidently delayed as a new committee was appointed at the following annual Corporation meeting to design a seal for the College (Guild 1867; 62). Unfortunately, due to the Revolutionary War, the College of Rhode Island was not well-financed, and so in President Manning’s letter to William Rogers in 1784, in which he asks Rogers to order the seal, he states, “The Treasurer has put a Note of 20 Dollars in my Hands, which I herewith inclose….as you know the Poverty of the College we rely on you to obtain [the seal] on the best Terms” (Bronson 1914; 520). The poor quality of this seal, which can be seen in its imprint, reflects the lack of finances of the College at the time (Bronson 1914; 521). The word Colony was changed to Republic in the motto on the border (Annual Report 1906; 26) to maintain accurate political wording and the image on the new seal was supposed to represent the Temple of Truth and had a telescope and book to symbolize existing knowledge and new discoveries (Simmons 2014). This image could be interpreted as the College changing focus from political allegiance to focusing on intellect and learning as intended, without losing the ideology of prestige and ritual. The functions the second seal seal served appear to be essentially the same as those previously assigned to the first seal, and it remains in Brown University’s possession today (Annual Report 1906; 26) as a valuable symbol of the University’s history and development.
Unlike the Revolutionary War, the renaming of the College to Brown University in 1804 did not provoke a prompt change in the University seal. The third and current seal was not commissioned until President Wayland realized in 1833 that in the process of renaming the University, updating the seal had been overlooked (Bronson 1914; 521). In 1834, the current seal was adopted and depicts a shield with four open, blank books separated into four quadrants by a red cross. Above the shield is a sun “rising amid clouds” and below is a banner with the motto “In Deo Speramus,” translated to “In God We Hope”. Bordering the seal are the words “Sigillum Universitatis Brunensis” (Guild 1867; 62). This image seems to keep with the second seal in emphasizing academia with the four books, which are rumored to represent Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and Oxford, four previously founded institutions of education and prestige (Kaplan 2012). This third seal, however, does incorporate a religious element with the motto “In God We Hope” and the red cross which is supposed to be the cross of St. George (Mitchell). The religious imagery is unusual, since Brown had from the start been less religiously rigid than other institutions founded in the same era. In the Charter of 1764, religious tests for members of the Faculty were rejected, and the governing board expressly made room for multiple denominations (Bronson 1914; 30-1). The sun could also be seen as an optimistic symbol for the future of the University, rising out of a cloudy and difficult past reminiscent of the financial troubles of the Revolutionary War.
The use of the third seal is much easier to trace, as it has been in official use for much longer than the first two seals, and continues to be used today. In the Catalogue of Brown University 1911-1912, when the Charter of 1764 discusses that the president and faculty of the school will be exempt from taxes, there is an update stating that in 1863 the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island voted that members of the University should not be exempt for more than ten thousand dollars each and that the University’s corporation agreed to this. At the bottom of the passage, it states, “the Secretary of this Corporation is hereby instructed to file a copy of this vote under the seal of the Corporation and certified by himself in the Office of the Secretary of State, as proof of the consent of this Corporation thereto” (Catalogue 1911; 38). The language in this text proves that the seal continued to be used as an authoritative symbol that signaled official proceedings and a standardized visual of the University’s will.
In 1901, amidst a heavy building phase for the University, the wooden fence surrounding the Univeristy was replaced with iron and brick with a large gate at the College Street entrance to campus, named the Van Wickle Gates (Bronson 1914; 470). Atop the gates, the seal proudly fulfills its public duty of representing Brown University to the outside world, here in a more physical manifestation than most. At this point, the seal did not prove a prominence the University hoped others would associate it with, but rather reminded the public of the prestige the University had already attained. Much of the symbolism of the seal, as a valuable and meaningful image, comes from its singularization as Kopytoff defines it (Kopytoff 1986; 73). Since the seal is only allowed to be used to represent Brown University, it becomes singular and allows Brown to “assert [its power] symbolically precisely by insisting on its right to singularize” the seal (Kopytoff 1986; 73). To create an image and then prevent anyone else from using it is to assert authority over others and to construct a sense of exclusivity. The seal was, and continues to be, a reminder to those at Brown University of their privilege and good fortune for being able to attend the selective institution, and presents Brown University as desirable and powerful to the rest of the world.
In recent years, Brown University has taken advantage of new technology and heavily increased its digital presence. With this, it has been able to seriously increase the number of places where the official coat of arms from the seal can be seen. The coat of arms is featured on every page of the website, and a simplified version can even be seen as a little logo next to the website’s tab in a web browser. In addition, all online documents, emails and announcements from the university have the coat of arms visible somewhere.
Student groups on campus have also taken to repurposing the Brown University coat of arms for their own organizations. One example of this is the Brown Veg Society, which in 2014 made their logo the coat of arms with the top two books replaced with pictures of a chicken and a cow. In this way, many student organizations have used parts of the seal to associate themselves with the University, but have modified it visually to more accurately embody the purpose of their group. This new function of the seal represents an increased “sphere of exchange” for the image, as the University is allowing parts of the seal to be used in more contexts that are not directly related to University administration (Kopytoff 1986; 71). Despite the increased circulation of the coat of arms as a decoration, the University retains strict regulations on the seal, as the entire seal is reserved for “legal authentication of diplomas and other documents” (Mitchell). In this way, Brown University has allowed for the awareness of their image to spread via the coat of arms, but has maintained singularity for the seal itself, as the entire image operates within a very limited sphere of exchange with the continued purpose of authenticating documents.
The Brown University seal has undergone several physical transformations that are important markers of turning points in the University’s history and self-view. Some of the most important changes to the seal, however, are not physical, but rather functional. The image of the seal at all points in history has been tied to prestige and tradition, but the transition from having the seal only viewed by select members of the community on official documents to the widespread visibility atop buildings, on banners, and in digital media, has done more to change how people both within and outside the Brown community interact with the official image than any visual alterations. While the University controls the seal and how it may be used, it is important to consider the seal as an active object that instills feelings such as pride, anxiety, and disappointment in the people who encounter it under different circumstances. These emotions are what constitute the power of Brown University, and what permit the University to have authority as a governing body and formidable presence in society.
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Bronson, Walter C. The History of Brown University, 1714-1914. Providence: U, 1914. 18 Aug. 2009. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Brown University. Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University. N.p.: Hammond, Angell, 1906. 28 Apr. 2010. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Brown University. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Brown University. N.p.: H. H. Brown, Printer, 1911. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor P., 1977. 7 July 2010. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Guild, Reuben Aldridge. History of Brown University, with Illustrative Documents. Providence, RI: Providence, Printers, 1867. 8 Jan. 2007. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Kaplan, Alexander. “Ra Ra Brunonia: The Seal — BlogDailyHerald.” Web log post. BlogDailyHerald. The Brown Daily Herald, 07 Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Kopytoff, Igor. Teaching Collection (Anthropology / ANTH3022 / C25). N.p.: n.p., 1986. 64-91. Print.
Mitchell, Martha. “Seal.” Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Brown University Library, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Simmons, William, comp. In Deo Speramus. 7 Mar. 2014. Exhibit. The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Providence.
Emma Byrne ’17