The Chicago Corporate Seal

by Etan Heller, Modern Manuscripts Intern

As a lawyer in the Law Department until 1886, and then as the Assistant to the 1st Vice President of the company thereafter, L.O. Goddard received hundreds of letters from various governmental departments (national, state, and local) throughout his career at the CB&Q, making up a very large portion of the incoming letters in the boxes of his correspondence. While going through these, I noticed a somewhat odd seal on the letterheads of some Chicago city government letters. The first one I came upon was on a letter from the Detective Bureau at the Chicago Police Department:

If you look closely at the seal (click the image for a larger version), you can make out 4 distinct features: In the middle floats an American shield with a sheaf of wheat in its center. On the left, a Native American stands on the shore looking out to sea. On the right, a ship is incoming. And perhaps the most puzzling of all the symbols, a nude baby reclines on what seems like a cloud at the top of the seal.

Today I came upon the same seal on a City Council letterhead, which seemed to indicate that this was indeed the official seal of the city of Chicago:

Notice that this version of the seal is slightly different from the Detective Bureau version. Rather than laying on a cloud, the baby is clearly on a seashell. The illustration style is also different, indicating that it was a different artist altogether.

Embarrassingly enough, after a little research I found out that the seal is still in fact the official corporate seal of Chicago (in my defense, I’m not a native Chicagoan). The current version is again illustrated much differently – it’s in color, with the orientation of the ship and the Native American switched. The baby, rather than laying helplessly on its back as in the other seals, seems to be reclining smugly with his legs crossed:

I was still curious as to the meanings of the various symbols in the seal, especially the odd inclusion of the baby in the shell. A little bit of research revealed the answers: the shield symbolizes the national spirit of Chicago as an American city, the sheaf of wheat prosperity, the Native American the origins of the city land, the ship the origins of commerce and European civilization, and the baby in the shell (a classical metaphor for a pearl) peace and purity.

The last mystery was why there were so many versions of the seal (there were even more than just the three above). It would seem obvious to simply say that each version was a redesign, but upon further inspection, the seal on the Detective Bureau letterhead and the seal on the City Council letterhead were each used on letters dating at around the same time (the summer of 1895), each design coming before and after occurrences of the other.

The answer is that, although the original 1837 ordinance had laid out a description and design for the seal,  the ordinance was rarely followed; many city departments used different versions of the seal designed by different artists concurrently. In order to remedy this anarchy, a new ordinance was issued in 1905 to standardize the seal, introducing a single design to be used. This 1905 design is the version still being used today.

Addendum: Here’s another version of the seal from 1894 (this time from the Department of Public Works). Notice the baby’s nightclub-singer-on-a-piano pose:


Leave a Reply