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New Bedford History / City Seal History
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.

Embellished City Seal

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.

City Seals

Arthur P. Motta, Jr.
City of New Bedford Office of Tourism & Marketing

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