Monday, July 13, 2015

The Official This, That and the Other Thing of Massachusetts

Chapter two of the Massachusetts General Laws is titled Arms, Great Seal, and Other Emblems of the Commonwealth. The first few sections describe the Massachusetts State Seal, first adopted by Governor John Hancock in 1780, and the Coat of Arms, both made official by the General Court in 1885. The description of the seal and arms in the Acts of 1885, describe the text  ‘Sigillum Reipublicse Massachusettensis’ around a blue shield with an Native American in the center holding a bow and arrow. The narrative continues to paint a picture of the state’s seal and arms we still use
today and can be found on flags and signage all over the commonwealth. These early emblems
are meaningful symbols to Massachusetts and our early history as a colony and state.

The first few sections of chapter two continue with the laws regarding the use and display of these designs and flags, but the chapter goes on with another 60 sections describing official state emblems.  In 1918, an official state flower (the Mayflower) was added followed by a state bird (Chickadee) and tree (American elm) in 1941. Then in the 1970s and 80s, we started passing a lot of legislation for official emblems: state beverage, state horse, state insect and fish. We have a state gem, mineral, rock, historic rock, glacial rock and explorer rock. We even have a state building and monument stone. As I read all these state emblems, I started to wonder: How many official state symbols do we need? Does one state really need a state song, patriotic song, folk song and glee club song? We even have a state muffin, (in case you were wondering, it’s the corn muffin).

Then I read that the state dog is a Boston Terrier, a dog bred here in Massachusetts back in the late 19th century.  Lynda Morgenroth writes in her book Boston Firsts: 40 Feats of Innovation That Happened First in Boston and Helped Make America Great, that the Boston Terrier was first ignored by dog clubs because he was considered a, “working man’s dog,” bred by servants of the Beacon Hill elite and not considered a pedigree dog of Europe and Asia. But this smart little dog was found to be so, “fun loving, gregarious, good-natured, with an instinct for compromise, and also handsome, clean and mannerly,” that he could not help but be loved. Boston Terriers became a favorite breed of people from all backgrounds, not just in Boston but across Massachusetts and eventually the entire United States. Because of this breed’s history (and probably because I am a dog lover who finds the Boston Terrier to be incredibly cute,) my thoughts changed from, “Why do we need a state dog?” to, “Everyone should know about the Boston Terrier!” The breed is a part of our cultural heritage and a great symbol of our state’s past.

If you look up the history of these state icons and emblems, you will find that most of these bills are filed by school children or used in some way to teach students about the legislative process. Usually, these types of bills are passed without much concern as they are often used as an exercise in government and will not change the operations or governing of the state. But In 2002, students from Canton asked the legislature to pass a bill making Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings the official children’s book of the commonwealth and were blocked. Legislators from Springfield wanted a book by Springfield’s native Dr. Seuss and clearly cared enough about the decision to debate with a school group. Luckily, a compromise was made when the legislature passed the bill with an added section making Dr. Seuss the official children’s author and illustrator. An official donut was also attached but there did not seem to be much argument about the Boston Cream.

The list of state emblems goes on and on, (state marine mammal, official cookie, colors of the commonwealth, etc.) and it is hard to feel passionate about all of them. But it is important to be part of a state government that teaches children that they can make changes to our laws and their voices will be heard.  These official state symbols can also give great pride to citizens, cities and towns. Worcester is home to the official memorial to honor Vietnam War veterans and Orange’s World War I memorial is the official Peace Statue.  While you may not care that the official Polka of the commonwealth is “Say Hello to Someone in Massachusetts,” you may be grateful that state has recognized Taj Mahal as the official Blues Artists. When it comes to Massachusetts state emblems, there is something for everyone.

For information on these state symbols or legislative history on how these bills became law, check out our website or visit the Massachusetts State Library in room 341 of the State House, Monday through Friday 9-5.

Stephanie Turnbull
Reference Department