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.

* * *

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.



5 thoughts on “Westborough History Connections: History and the Westborough Seal”

  1. I really appreciate reading the Westborough history you shared with us. Having moved here in 1977, the seal and all the events of the 1967 predate our arrival. I like the simplicity of the original town seal. I agree with your observation that the townsfolk did their best to be thoughtful and sensitive, given the culture and understanding at the time. We see such appropriation through a very different lens these days! Know better, do better.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anne. I am actually excited about the prospect of designing a new seal. Such an exercise allows us to discuss who we are as a town and what represents the best of us. What a great conversation to have!

  2. Being quite aware of the great good to our communities of libraries and grateful for  the important work done by librarians, I find myself eager to respond to the article.
         I am rather astonished that anyone would think images of a tool should be banished for what men may have done with it. Will we banish pictures of axes because some have injured people with them. Will we abolish pictures of airplanes and excoriate the Wright Brothers for their invention having been used for dropping bombs?  

       As for insulting attitudes toward other people, humans being what they are – all humans – bigotry will always exist. The evil is not in disliking others. To dislike is human nature. The evil exists  is preventing those we dislike from their pursuit of happiness, or to threaten their safety.  Our job is to point out the wrongness of bigoted thinking, not to bury it. Have we forgotten the lesson that forgetting history leads to repeating it?  Rather, it is necessary to remind people, especially children, that this was and is how we some behaved, and to show them they can survive, and to give them guide post as to how far we have come since those days. Would you rather have to they think that we have made no progress at all?

          These early setters did not come, as has been suggested, to conquer North Americal.  In most part they had no idea of the extent of the continent. Most came in smallish groups to found farming communities ……..  and it is important to remember they were Europeans.  Americans came along almost 200 years later and have steadily – if too slowly – gone about rectifying early injustices. A nation with a black president and black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and many mayors and governors and government officials, not to mention a black woman as Secretary of State, is testimony to that. 

         Why ever would we want to hide how far we have come ……….  and. perhaps thereby set the progress back or create new hatreds.  Why try to protect people, especially children,  from insult rather than teach them how they can survive it, since we are unlikely to find a way to make all humans good people? Surely the cure for bigotry is not to create more hatred amongst folks who were once inclined to see each other as fellow countrymen?

    1. Thank you very much, Shirley, for your thoughtful response to my article. If you allow me, I have a few reflections on what you wrote.

      Symbols, monuments, and seals are constructed to represent the best of who we think we are, and we put them in open, public places to remind us and to tell others about our conclusions. When these symbols no longer serve this purpose, we replace, redesign, or re-contextualize them. Such a process helps us to figure out who we are as a community and how we can best communicate that sentiment to others. In 1967, the people of Westborough looked at their town seal and decided that it did not adequately represent the best that Westborough has to offer. We are now at a moment when some people are questioning whether the seal that they came up with to replace the old one continues to put Westborough in its best possible light. It was a fair question to ask in 1967, and it is a fair question to ask now. In the end, we may well decide that the cotton gin indeed represents the best of what Westborough is and so should remain on the seal. But it is also possible through our deliberations that we realize that we can create a symbol that better represents who we are as a community today. During a time when our country is politically divided as much as we are, it seems to me that discussion over what kind of seal we want for our town provides a pretty safe space to help us find places of agreement about who we actually are as a town.

      It is important to note that no one is proposing the banning or erasing of history when asking to reconsider whether or not we want the cotton gin to appear on our town seal. People will still be able to come in to the library or go to the Historical Society and learn about Eli Whitney and his cotton gin. People will still be able to search the library’s archive and read the newsletters that were printed in 1967 to honor Westborough’s 250th anniversary, in the same way that people in the future will be able to come into this same archive and study the materials we produced for the 300th anniversary in an attempt to gain a better picture of who we are today. When communities decide the symbols they use no longer adequately describe who they are, we have created special places to put them so that people can continue to contemplate what those symbols represent or once represented. These special places are cultural institutions. Indeed, libraries, museums, and archives are where we store any kind of important resource that has outlived its utilitarian value in the present.

      And finally, you raise some really interesting historical and philosophical questions. What were the intentions of Europeans when they came to North America? Were they all the same, or did different people have different agendas? In the interpretation of history, is it true that we see continual moral improvement over time (“the Whig theory of history” is the name for such an historical framework–fancy, I know), or are there other historical models that can take into account a greater amount of historical evidence? How and why do the people in the picture from the Hoccomocco Herald, who truly believed they were honoring the native people who once inhabited Westborough, now appear bigoted to us today? What changed, and what are we to make of this change and its implication for the practice of history? What is the distinction between Europeans and Americans in the settlement of North America, and at one point did Americans stop seeing themselves as European and why? Are tools truly neutral participants in the workings of society, or do they take on moral qualities when they are put to bad uses or have unintended consequences as a result of their invention?

      There are many ways to explore these fascinating questions, including reading history, philosophy, and even science fiction. The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” immediately comes to mind as a work that explores the tool question. And another common science fiction theme asks how we might feel if aliens landed here on earth–would we happily embrace them, especially if they started to use up resources and push us out of the communities where we once lived, even if they came with good will?–can help us think in a different way about territorial settlement. If you are interested in these kinds of questions and want to learn more, I encourage you to explore them with the resources we have here at the library. I am happy to help direct you to some of them if you like. Human beings have been grappling with the kinds of questions you raise in one way or another throughout history, so clearly we have not yet discovered the answers. But exploring them is part of the exciting process of coming to understand who we are and why we are the way we are.

      Thank you again for your intelligent and considered response to my article. You have clearly given me a lot to think about, and I truly appreciate you giving me that opportunity.

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