|Seal of the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts
Shortly after New Bedford was granted a City Charter in 1847, an early city
seal curiously appeared on some city documents depicting a crudely drawn
lighthouse. It is likely that the amateur engraver was depicting Clark's Point
Light, the town's first lighthouse. However, the seal's design was revised in
the city ordinances of 1853 which directed that it depict "a view of the
Northerly extremity of Palmer's Island, with its Light House, of a whale ship
under sail in the harbor, of a Steamboat passing out by Palmer's Island and the
City of New Bedford in the distance." James T. Almy (1824-1895), an
engraver and jeweler who kept a shop on Union Street, was selected to design
The Seal is the official device of the municipal government, utilized as a
mark of authorization and decree. The City Clerk is charged as the keeper of
the Seal. Reproduction of the Seal for any purpose requires written permission
of the City Clerk.
Over the last 150 years, the City Seal has appeared with several renderings
of the scene, though the inscriptions have always remained the same. This is
due to the fact that the printing of city documents was contracted to different
printers from time to time. In the era before photoengraving, each printing
house would subsequently recreate the seal by hand using its own engravers.
The Seal is inscribed in Latin, typical for a Massachusetts seal of the
mid-nineteenth century. The upper inscription, Nova Bedfordia Condita A.D.
1787, translates to New Bedford, founded in the Year of Our Lord 1787. That was
the year in which New Bedford was recognized by the Commonwealth as a
legitimate town. Before 1787, it was known as Bedford Village, or Bedford
Landing. The lower inscription, Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1847,
translates precisely to City-Status Granted by the Authority of the State in
the Year of Our Lord 1847. This was a 19th century way of saying
"Incorporated in 1847." Therefore, New Bedford was founded as a town
in 1787 and incorporated as a city in 1847.
New Bedford's Seal is clearly
modeled after Boston's seal, which depicts the City of Boston from the water
with shipping in the foreground. New Bedford's seal carries an upper and lower
Latin inscription identical to Boston (except for the dates). Boston's motto is
also displayed above scene in Latin and is a biblical reference.
The New Bedford's motto, Lucem Diffundo, appears in the scene above the city
and lighthouse. This translates precisely as I Diffuse Light. It can also be
interpreted as I Spread the Light. It has often been incorrectly translated as
I Light the World. The author of the motto remains undiscovered, however, there
is a good chance that it was Abraham Howland, the city's first mayor, or one of
his circle of friends. It has been widely printed that Lucem Diffundo is an
allusion to New Bedford's leading role in the whale oil trade. This is true,
however, the motto has at least two other meanings:
1. Lucem Diffundo is a 'personification' of the lighthouse depicted in the
center of the seal; it is the lighthouse proclaiming, "I diffuse
Light." Palmer's Island Lighthouse still stands in New Bedford's inner
harbor, restored and re-lighted by the city in 1999 on its 150th anniversary.
The original seal, first crudely drawn in 1847, depicted only the lighthouse
with the motto, Lucem Diffundens, which translates to Diffusing Light, or the
lighthouse as saying "I am diffusing light."
2. Howland and the new city fathers were predominately Quakers. Followers of
the religious teachings of Englishman, George Fox, the Quakers referred to
themselves as the "Society of Friends" and "Children of the
Light." Their spiritual mission in life was to spread (diffuse) the
"Inner Light of Christ" to all they encountered. So here they were,
the Children of the Light, employed in the lighting industry, supplying whale
oil to the entire world for lighting
In addition, New Bedford held all the federal contracts, which supplied
whale oil for the young nation's system of lighthouses.
Imagine the power and significance
of Lucem Diffundo to them as they spread spiritual and physical light to all
they met. Surely, the writing of St. Matthew held great meaning for them:
"I am the Light of the World. A city that is set on a hill shall not be
hid." Indeed, the biblical references in the seal's design remains to this
day. In the foreground is the Fairhaven shore, with the Acushnet River almost
seeming like the River Jordan, with the city set on its hill in the distance,
like the Promised Land. In the harbor is depicted a steamship, representing the
future and a whaleship representing the past, with Palmer's Island and its
Lighthouse in the center, a spiritual and physical beacon to all who arrived in
this world port built by light. Certainly, the Quakers saw their wealth and
success as a sign of divine approval.
The spirit of Lucem Diffundo lives on today, though less widely known. It is
this spirit, which keeps its adherents resilient and tenacious in the face of
all obstacles for the betterment of this great city by the sea.
Arthur P. Motta, Jr.
City of New Bedford Office of Tourism & Marketing