A shield supported by two blank faced ladies–one holding a scroll, the other propping up a basket of fruit–their feet wrapped in a ribbon reading “Philadelphia Maneto.” It’s the scene depicted on police cars, on City buildings, on that notice you got from L&I, on that weird coin Grandpa gave you from the Bicentennial. It’s the central feature on the city flag. I’ve got one on my business card. For over a hundred years, this figure has been plastered all over the city it represents; it is the City Seal.
The central elements of the current seal date back to the establishment of the modern government of the City in 1789. At the time of the Revolution, the City dissolved the Corporation which had governed since 1701, and in so doing cast off the various trappings of the Corporation, including its seal. It’s not clear who designed the new seal the City adopted, although it shared numerous elements with the arms designed by a three man committee including David Rittenhouse (the astronomer for whom the Square is named) and brought into use on official Commonwealth documents and currency beginning in 1777.
Unlike the Commonwealth arms, which featured two horses “rearing respectant,” the City selected a shield supported by two female figures, dressed in flowing classical garb, representing Peace, on the left, and Plenty, on the right. In the 1789 version of the seal, Peace holds a scroll containing Penn’s plan (and Holme’s survey) for the City, Plenty a cornucopia overflowing with produce.
The escutcheon itself, to use the heraldic lingo, was ‘azure a fess Or,’ meaning that a gold bar divided the blue shield horizontally, creating two fields. A simple plough occupied the upper field, a ship in full sail, the lower. These symbols were drawn from the original seals of the counties of Chester and Philadelphia, each of which featured a different crest above William Penn’s own insignia. Above the shield, a muscular disembodied arm held aloft scales of justice, which Peace and Plenty, facing each other, appear to be examining closely. Below, Roman numerals give the year, 1789, in which representational government was established in Philadelphia.
This coat of arms appears to have been initially embraced, but then to have fallen somewhat into disuse. A much beloved painting by Thomas Sully in 1821, now in the collection of the Independence National Historic Park and on displayed at the Second Bank building, was commissioned as part of celebrations to welcome the Marquis de Lafayette back to Philadelphia for the American Revolution’s fiftieth anniversary in 1824. The painting was later moved to the former Supreme Court Chamber in Independence Hall (not to be confused with Jacob Rutter’s somewhat unhinged painting of the Pennsylvania Coat of Arms which now hangs in that room–examine the horses, for example) and hung in the Mayor’s office for a time. Other paintings also attest to its initial popularity.
In 1854, for reasons unknown, a new, degraded version was adopted. After six decades the shield’s supporters appear to have wearied of their task and simply sat themselves on the ground, propping up the shield with their elbows in a rather undignified manner. It is possible that seated supporters came into vogue around this time; the Commonwealth’s horses also plopped down around this time before rearing respectant again in the 1870s.
To fix this sad state of affairs, one of Philadelphia’s historical heavyweights of the late Nineteenth Century, Colonel Frank Marx Etting, stepped up. Then serving as Chairman of the Committee to Restore Independence Hall and advising the Committee on the National Centennial Commemoration. Etting proposed a number of changes, which the Select and Common Councils (the predecessors to the current City Council) adopted in 1874, bringing the arms to (very nearly) its present form.
As with his efforts at the Hall, Etting’s apparent goal in this effort was to restore the arms to their historic appearance, which he noted had “been almost frittered away by engravers and artists, in order to suit their aesthetic notions.” Much like his work at the Hall, however, where he had assembled a sort of museum of early American oddities, Etting’s revitalized insignia was a mishmash of new and old elements, seemingly plucked at random from various sources, as suited his personal aesthetic and historical notions.
In place of the original date, Etting, at his own initiative, inserted 1701, the year Penn’s Corporation had been chartered. This date was accepted as the date of the founding of the City for some time. (More on this in a moment.) The figures were returned to their feet, and re-posed facing front. On the scroll held by Peace, Etting removed Penn’s map, replacing it with an anchor, which in some early seals had stood in for the ship in representing Philadelphia County.
On the shield, the good Colonel appears to have taken some pains to follow the various standards of heraldic design–including most importantly the ‘Rule of Tincture’ relating to the placement of colors–to describe the various fields and charges using correct nomenclature, and to depict the various elements using the Petra Sancta System, of course. Etting was quite serious about his updated seal.
His most substantial change was the addition, on a bit of ribbon below the shield, of the phrase “Philadelphia Maneto,” frequently translated to ‘let brotherly love endure.’ The phrase was simultaneously adopted by the Councils as the motto of the City. Etting took yet another bit of license here. In his letter to the Councils, he notes that the term was “a rendering into Latin from the text of [Paul’s] Epistle to the Hebrews, from which the very name of our City comes.” In the King James Bible, Hebrews 13:1 reads, “Let brotherly love continue.”
However, when translated to Latin, the Greek word ‘philadelphia’ must be written out as a series of words describing its meaning, as Latin does not contain the common noun philadelphia. To Latinize the phrase, Etting simply inserted Philadelphia as a proper noun, which can only be translated “Let Philadelphia Endure.” Not one to let rules overwhelm style, Etting noted that the term was an “authoritative injunction for the continuance of fraternal love,” attributed it as a quote to the Penn family, and it has stuck ever since.
The final change to the Seal was made in 1908, when a special committee appointed by Mayor John Reyburn determined that Philadelphia had in fact been founded in 1683, and recommended that Etting’s 1701 be banished from the Seal. This was done, and upon discovering that the revised date put a two hundred twenty-fifth birthday celebration at hand, the citizenry did dance and sing.
In the century since, use of the seal has become widespread. It adorns buildings, both public and private throughout the City. It’s the logo on our bed-sheet flag–a style much derided in the surprisingly robust and opinionated vexilogical community. For my part, I’m not much taken with the flag, but I do enjoy thinking about how those same vacant-eyed figures–seated, standing, or seemingly drunk–have watched over the City and so many generations of Philadelphians over the past two-hundred years.
Covered in gold leaf on the Municipal Services Building behind the larger-than-life Frank Rizzo. Splashed in orange on SEPTA’s Broad Street Line. In 1980s postmodern high atop the elevator shaft at 2nd Street Station on the Market-Frankford El. Over the entrance of the Fishtown branch of the Free Library. Once guarding the entrance of the late Fanta-Leone Pool in South Philly. The City Seal covers all of Philadelphia’s 135 square miles.
Know of one on a building or public place not mentioned here? We’d love to see it. Leave a comment below or on the Hidden City Facebook page.