This week in history, 85 years ago

The island’s Coat of Arms is created
Thu, 02/28/2013 - 5:04pm

Eighty-five years ago, in February 1928, the coat-of-arms for the Town of New Shoreham was created by the mainland historian Howard M. Chapin.

This well-respected Providence resident cared enough about Rhode Island that he felt compelled to design a coat-of-arms for each of the state’s 39 towns and cities that did not already have one.

Chapin was not only an expert in state history, but was well-versed in the world of heraldry, where formal rules dictate what a family, a town, or any other entity, should display on their coat-of-arms. Block Island was lucky, and the three-sectioned shield that Chapin suggested is — even when allowing for my bias — the most attractive of any in the state.

Three iconic symbols comprise the design: a lion represents the English heritage of the island’s settlers in 1661; a codfish provided early residents with sustenance and wealth; and the sailboat is the island’s famed “double ender,” noted for seaworthiness and its ability to be pulled onto a beach.

A coat-of-arms is not to be confused with a town’s official corporate seal. By 1928, each Rhode Island town did have a seal, but few had a coat-of-arms. Block Island’s town council adopted its circular seal on Jan. 4, 1897, featuring a map of the island with 12 odd-shaped buildings scattered across it, and a couple of three-masted sailing vessels in the surrounding waves (not the island’s two-masted double enders). That seal was used as a gold-colored sticker affixed to official town documents. The image is most readily seen on the front of the town’s tax books — but since 1990, a revised design has been used, with more vessels and only three buildings.

In 1936, the 300th anniversary of the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams was celebrated. This was the Depression era, and President Franklin Roosevelt had created numerous Federally-funded programs to generate jobs for the unemployed. One of these groups — the Public Works Administration — was tasked with erecting five-foot tall cement obelisks in each of Rhode Island’s cities and towns, with the appropriate coats-of-arms affixed near the top. These three-dimensional plaques were made of metal, with the sculptors usually following the designs made by Chapin in 1928.

One obelisk was allotted to Block Island, and the town council of 1936 chose the street corner by the Surf Hotel as the best spot to place it. Identical metal plaques were placed on two of the obelisk’s three sides, thus commanding the attention of passersby along Water Street as well as Dodge Street. In addition, two more plaques were added with words stating: “New Shoreham, Incorporated 1672, Named for Shoreham, England.”

The coat-of-arms on the obelisk was finely sculpted by Albert E. Ticknell, an artist from West Warwick; students from the Rhode Island School of Design may also have participated.

The obelisk, though, has been marred for several decades — the reason being that the island’s various past and present town councils have had no willingness to replace the missing “New Shoreham” plaque that faced Water Street.

In New Harbor, at the Veterans’ Park next to the Island Cemetery, there is a similar coat-of-arms — also made by Ticknell — on the World War II memorial monument.

Another of Ticknell’s three-dimensional coats-of-arms is on a hallway wall of the Block Island Historical Society. Unlike the other, exterior plaques, which are cast in metal and left bare, the B.I. Historical Society’s version is colored in red, blue, gold and silver.

And for at least 60 years, the coat-of-arms has been used commercially by Block Island residents, artists and entrepreneurs — widely reproduced in books, pamphlets, and newspapers; and sold at most Block Island stores in the form of postcards, posters, T-shirts, flags, automobile decals, or bumper stickers — all in the scheme devised by Howard Chapin in 1928.