Westborough History Connections: History and the Westborough Seal

As the Local History Librarian at the Westborough Public Library, I have recently received requests for information about the history of the Westborough town seal, given recent discussions about replacing it due to its depiction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The controversy centers on the cotton gin’s role in making cotton production in the United States much more profitable, which consequently preserved and prolonged slavery throughout the American South right at a time when it was beginning to wane.

Beginning in 1899, every city and town in Massachusetts was required to have a seal after the General Court of Massachusetts passed Chapter 256, and town clerks were given the responsibility of maintaining their custody. Westborough’s first town seal began to appear on its Annual Town Report in 1913. The design is fairly generic, although to my modern eye it has an antique charm to it.

The original Westborough town seal as it appears on the 1913 Annual Town Report.

As part of the celebration of its 250th Anniversary in 1967, Westborough decided to change its town seal. According to the Commemorative Booklet for the celebration, art students from Westborough High School were invited to submit drawings for a new seal design. The Anniversary Committee ended up selecting four drawings to be used as a composite for the official seal: a sketch of the tower on Town Hall, an outline of a map of Westborough proclaiming it as the 100th town in Massachusetts, a “pie crust” edge around the seal, and a drawing of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin based on his patent.

The new Westborough seal design, as it appears on the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

The new seal appeared on the front cover of the Commemorative Booklet and was used to create a commemorative coin. On the reverse side of the booklet and the coin is another drawing by a high school art student depicting an “Indian lad in a deep forest setting.” The Westborough Center for History and Culture in the Westborough Public Library has one of the coins in its collection. (I am happy to show it to anyone who is interested once the library opens up again.)

The back cover of the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough in 1765 and left the town for good in 1789 to attend Yale College. He received a patent for his cotton gin in 1794. Cotton gins had been around before Whitney’s invention, most notably in India, which dominated the world’s cotton market well before the American South began producing and exporting cotton. But the particular strain of cotton that grew in the South had fibers that were tightly attached to its seeds, and the Indian cotton gins could not separate the two. 

Whitney never realized the profits he expected to gain from his invention. Instead of selling cotton gins directly to cotton growers, he and his partner decided to charge farmers to clean their cotton for them, much like grist mills charged to grind corn or wheat. The simplicity of his cotton gin design, however, made it easy to copy, so the two ended up using all of their profits to fight patent infringements and the company went bankrupt in 1797.

Whereas one person could clean about a pound of cotton a day, Whitney’s cotton gin increased cotton production by 4,900 percent. With great profits to be made, this increased production capacity prompted cotton growers in the American South to expand their operations and created increased demand for arable land in the West. Since these growers relied on slaves to cultivate and process their cotton, the institution of slavery greatly expanded as well, and slaves were required to work longer and harder to meet production capacities.

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During the course of researching the history of the Westborough seal and the role of the 250th anniversary celebration in its creation, I came across some pretty offensive cultural content given today’s standards. I highly doubt that the people who produced the content intentionally meant to be offensive at the time, but the reaction that this content elicits today illustrates how attitudes change with historical perspective.

One of the events that was held as part of the anniversary celebration was a “Minstrel Show,” which as far as I can tell was basically a talent show. Judging by the character of other events held during the celebration and by pictures I came across of people dressed up in 19th-century costume, the Anniversary Committee probably selected “Minstrel” for the title of the talent show in order to sound“old timey.” A similar example of 19th-century inspired nostalgia, for example, was a beard and mustache growing contest. People got so into it that they held a ceremony to bury a few beard whiskers and three of the razors used in a “shaving of the beards” ritual. Later, the tombstone marking the burial site was stolen, which caused newspaper headlines. In selecting “Minstrel” for the title of their talent show, the Anniversary Committee members failed to take into account the racism that structures this specific form of entertainment. Subsequent historical scholarship on the history of minstrel shows would now make such an oversight neglectful.

I also came across a picture and article about the “Hoccomocco Indians” that appeared in the “Hoccomocco Herald” (the newsletter for the anniversary). A word of warning, some people may find elements of the article to be offensive and upsetting.

“Hoccomocco Indians” from The Hoccomocco Herald.

The use of Native American racist tropes (“pretty squaws,” “fierce braves,” “smoke signals,” and “scalps”) certainly jumps out, as well as the apparent need at the end of the article to draw intentional attention to the use of “color” as a pun, where it refers both to a common term used to designate behavior outside of the norm and to the tone of Native American skin, by putting it in quotation marks.

But also notable is the article’s perpetuation of colonialist attitudes and ideologies in its characterization of interactions between native people and European colonizers. European contact with people who lived in North America was inevitable, but such contact could be approached in one of two ways: as a meeting of two civilizations with the aim of sharing cultures, engaging in trade, and respectfully recognizing the sovereignty of the people who already inhabited the land; or as an act of conquest with the aim of exploiting both the people and land they encountered. The Europeans landing in North America decided to go with the latter option. (Note that when it came to exploring and meeting civilizations in Asia, these same countries generally went with the former option. See the Westborough Connections series on Westborough-India for more on the reasons why such a difference existed). As a means of justifying their conquest of North America, Europeans ideologically flipped the combative relationship between the two civilizations on its head, and the 1967 article continues to reproduce such an ideology by positioning the Native Americans as the (potential) aggressors and “the white man” as innocent victims. (Did you also catch the reference to the beard contest in the first paragraph?)

What is clear in the article is that the people involved in making the costumes believe that they are honoring Native Americans and their culture through careful research and design of their clothing. Unfortunately, there is no mention one way or another of the group reaching out to or involving Native Americans in their efforts. But if they had done so, it is possible that they would have found a more sensitive way to honor the first inhabitants of where we live now.

History never fossilizes. Our picture of the past is always shaped by our evolving perspectives over time. As we move further away from an event, we are better able to see the ideologies—both good and bad–that unconsciously informed the actions and thoughts of people living during that particular time. The irony is that the further we move away from a historical moment–both in time and in ideology–the better our position is to understand the social, economic, and cultural processes that were at play. Current events swirl around us, and we make the best decisions we can at the moment they happen given the circumstances, but we can only come to a true understanding of what that moment means through time and distance.

I hope that the Westborough Center for History and Culture is a place where we can explore these difficult issues in a non-threatening way based on the historical materials and resources available to us. That’s hard to do. The people who put the cotton gin on our seal, or called a talent show a minstrel show, or dressed up in Native American costume and wrote about it were not bad people. They simply did not have the historical tools that now inform our standards today to see the implications of their actions–in the same way that we today do not have the proper historical tools at our disposal to see how future generations will judge us. Others may disagree with my assertion here and believe that these people in the past should have known better. Still others may believe that what was good for people living in the past should be good for us living today. I welcome the dialog.

Respectfully respond in the Comments, drop me an e-mail, or stop by the Westborough Center to chat when I am around once the library reopens. I promise that if you do, I will give your ideas respectful consideration and will provide a safe space to explore them together.