Happy Birthday, Chicago!

City of Chicago Seal

The City of Chicago was incorporated on March 4, 1837, and the world has never been the same since. Chicago helped shape American history. No one in Chicago actually celebrates this birthday, but true Chicagoans are always aware when March 4 comes and goes without any fanfare.

The City of Chicago Seal was adopted officially in June of 1837. I will try my best to explain the symbols in the seal. I will rely on my memory, which isn’t always very accurate, to recall facts and myths I have heard or read. I remember a  little from the Chicago History course I had to take way back in the fourth grade. The Lithuanian nuns at Holy Cross School were just crazy about Chicago History. I’m not sure if there’s even an official explanation of the seal anywhere, but I will try my best to explain its symbolism.

The shield represents the United States of America. The colors of the American flag are represented as are the original thirteen American colonies by the thirteen stripes. The sheaf of wheat represents our abundant agriculture and fertility. The ship represents either Columbus, the Europeans, or the Pilgrims arriving in the New World. The ship is seen and/or greeted by a Native American. In the fourth grade they were called Indians, but we all know that Indians is a misnomer because Columbus never did reach the East Indies as he had planned. Well, Native American isn’t a very good term either. After all, America was named after Amerigo Vespucci who did a better job of selling and publicizing the New World to the Spanish Catholic Monarchs.

The baby in the seashell represents a new beginning. I suppose it also has echoes of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. I remember during Mayor Harold Washington’s reign, some of the African-American alderman wanted to get rid of the white baby because it was a racist symbol. The baby might have been legislated out of the seal, but then someone projected the cost of removing the white baby from every place it appeared in Chicago into the millions of dollars. And so, the City of Chicago still has a white baby. We have learned to live quite well with the white baby.

At the very bottom is the Chicago motto: Urbs in horto, which means city in the garden in Latin. Well, we are a city, but we are no longer in the middle of a garden. And you can thank urban sprawl for that!