Saturday, December 7, 2013

What's That on the Town Seal?

I was asked, at an event at Town Hall last night, what the squarish or diamond-shaped object at the lower right of the town seal might be.

Town Seal with Unidentified Object

I could identify all of the other objects on the seal, mostly agricultural implements reflecting the town's origins and its still largely agrarian nature in 1848, the year the seal was designed and adopted. 

But what was that object containing what looked like 12 square holes?

A clue to the answer was found in a 1951 brochure, "Town and City Seals of Massachusetts," prepared for the 60th anniversary of the State Street Trust Company.  Here, in part, is what the authors had to say about the Brookline seal:

The agricultural items in the seal, bee-hive, wheat-sheaf, scythe, rake, spade, plough, and harrow, are emblematic of the character of the town from its early settlement....

To 21st century eyes, all of the named items can be easily recognized on the Brookline seal  — with the exception of the harrow.  Could the square object with holes be a harrow?

A dictionary definition did not seem promising:

Definition of HARROW
:  a cultivating implement set with spikes, spring teeth, or disks and used primarily for pulverizing and smoothing the soil 

A Google image search brought up many pictures like these which did not seem anything like the object on the seal.

Modern harrows

But there was also this image, from a word origin blog post about the word "harrowing" that also contained the following description of early harrows: "an industrial-strength agricultural tool, usually consisting of a heavy frame set with iron teeth or tines."
So, could the object on the seal be the heavy frame of a mid-19th century (or earlier) harrow?

Confirmation came from an unlikely source: Vincent Van Gogh.  Far down among the results of the Google image search was this 1883 sketch and study by Van Gogh called "Man Pulling a Harrow."

Van Gogh - Man Pulling a Harrow

Except for being 5x4 instead of 4x3 it looks exactly like the object on the town seal.  And with that a not so harrowing search for an answer came to an end.

For more on the origins of the Brookline town seal, see my earlier post "Brookline's Town Seal: Adopted April 3, 1848."

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