The Viele Map

"No other city is so spitefully incoherent"

--James Baldwin

Welcome to Manhattan Unlocked Walking Tours

Discover the hidden-in-plain-sight history and have fun decoding the architectural assortments of New York's most iconic (and architecturally complex) neighborhoods.

About Us

Manhattan Unlocked began as a blog over a decade ago to explore and explain the complex and captivating histories behind New York's constellation of neighborhoods that stretch nearly five miles from the Battery to Central Park--what most people consider New York City. It was a journey to test the waters for a book project, and the results were promising enough to dive into discovering the single story history behind the architectural creation of New York City. Our method of research and exploration involved creating immersive walking tours for key New York neighborhoods that together tell a unifying story of the city.

Our Walking Tours

Join us on a journey through time and space and re-discover long lost geographies and bygone transit systems. Manhattan Unlocked walking tours cover neighborhoods with their own unique stories to tell, but that were all part of the "city's" move uptown from City Hall to Central Park.

What Makes Our Tours Special?

  • Historical Insights:We believe that understanding Manhattan's long lost geography is crucial to grasping how "the city" moved uptown.
  • Transit Tales:Learn how different forms of rail transit--from horsecars in the 1850s to subways in the 1900s--shaped the city's architectural diversity.
  • The Pump Uptown:Discover how the daily act of "commuting to work" played a pivotal role in the city's growth, turning it into the vibrant metropolis we know today.
  • The Book: Build: The History of New York City on the Island of Manhattan

    While our walking tours provide a taste of Manhattan's history, we're also hard at work on a book that will dive deep into the city's past and explain the logic behind the "conveyer belt" of neighborhoods running up Broadway and Fifth Avenue, along a path of modern-day "ruins" of forgotten "cities."

    Join Us on a Walking Tour

    We are relaunching our walking tours over the Fall 2023 after the challenges of covid. We hope to see you on a tour of the history behind the world's most inspiring streetscapes.

    Re-launch dates:

    Sept 18: Midtown Manhattan Art and Architecture Walking Tour

    Midtown west

    Sept 27: Holdouts! Based on the Alpern & Durst Book

    Midtown east

    Oct 10: Recreate the Most Requested Walking Tour of 1840s New York

    NoHo & SoHo to City Hall

    TBD: Explore the Ruins of a Forgotten City in the Middle of Manhattan

    Astor Place to Madison Square

    TBD: A Disastrous History of Housing the Poor

    Chinatown and The Lower East Side

    In the meantime, the old blog for "testing the waters" remains below.

    Click Here to See Tours

    Sunday, December 5, 2010

    Decoding the Seals of the City of New York

    A study of the current and past seals of New York City is an excellent way to learn the fundamentals of city history--ever wonder about the obscure symbols on the Municipal Building? Or why the seal appears differently from one building to another? The seal has a very rich, complex history, and counting every change, under the Dutch, the English, and then as free New Yorkers, we've had at least eight different versions in Manhattan's time. 

    The familiar figures of the sailor and Native American made their first appearance in 1686, one year after James (our proprietor) moved up from Duke of York to King James II.  After the Revolution, a single adjustment was “officially” made--an eagle replaced the royal crown--but in the process a symbol was lost. Then, in 1915, after decades of loose standards and builders and sculptors taking artistic license with the seal on buildings and monuments throughout the city, the Common Council ordered the history books dug out and a final "once-and-for-all," "this is the real deal" seal was officially promulgated, and the old symbol re-appeared in the process.  In fact, the seal's history is rife with one “tempest in a teapot” scandal after another.

    In addition to the seal itself, it’s also intriguing to know how history was viewed at different times in history.  Important periods encoded on the seal are all but forgotten today.  This was a fascinating post to research and it should clear up some popular misconceptions about the seal of the City of New York.

    I relied heavily on John Buckley Pine's, Seal and Flag of the City of New York, 1665-1915 for this entry. 

    First the basics. Let's break down the current, official seal.

    The seal is wrapped in a laurel wreath. Most often used as a symbol of victory (to "rest on one's laurels" is to milk past achievements), it's the bay leaf.  A more familiar symbolic image may be this...

    An eagle, facing and rising towards a sailor, surmounts a hemisphere at the top.

    A ribbon inscribed with the Latin words, SIGILLUM CIVITATIS NOVI EBORACI, simply translates as "Seal of the City of New York." 

    The two figures on the seal, a sailor and a Native American, are almost always identified as having the names Dexter and Sinister. But there is a designated name for every position on a seal (for example, the eagle occupies a position called the "crest"), and “the dexter” and “the sinister” are seal positions: they are Latin for "right" and "left."  On the official seal, the figures hold up the shield (they should never be leaning on it), and the sailor is the "dexter support," while the Native American the "sinister support."

    The sailor holds a plummet in his right hand, the Native American holds a bow in his left.  Some accounts say the sailor is holding a plumb, a carpenter's tool, but it's actually a lead-lined plummet used for measuring water depths. And just because visuals are fun,

    it looks more like this...

                                    ...than this....
    Pointing toward the sky over the right shoulder of the sailor is a cross-staff; a navigational tool used for finding latitude, it's used like this...
    This is the symbol that mysteriously disappears and re-appears, as we’ll  see shortly.

    Both figures stand on a laurel branch.

    On the rare occasion that the seal gets any press coverage at all, it's usually because of the date at the bottom, which since 1977 has been 1625, a date most agree is meaningless. Over its history, though, the seal has displayed different years depending on whatever hallmark event was fashionable to recognize at the time.

    Now for the really interesting history. At the center, a shield is emblazoned with two beaver and two flour barrels in the spaces between the arms of a windmill.

    The beaver (their pelts for fur and skin for hats) is most famously associated with New York's economic beginnings under the Dutch. To give you an idea of just how central beaver were in the early economy, the Netherlands-bound ship, the Arms of Amsterdam, delivered the Schagan letter bearing the news of Peter Minuit's purchase of the island in 1626, which also enumerated this cargo:
    7,246 Beaver skins
    178 1/2 Otter skins
    675 Otter skins
    48 Mink skins
    36 Lynx skins
    33 Minx
    34 Muskrat skin
    Beaver were, by far, the main commodity of New Netherland and could actually be used as currency. But according to the indispensable Gotham, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, the beaver trade fell off  80% just 25 years later, by the mid-1650s.

    The English took over in 1664 and a decade later a "new beaver," so to speak, was found--and just for Manhattan--in the actions of Governor Andros who ordained that all imports be processed through the port of New York.  As well, all exports had to be packed, loaded and shipped from New York. With Andros' decree, every community from Albany to Amboy to Hempstead had to send their cattle,  pigs, and harvest to New York for export. Flour, though, was the “new beaver.”

    "Bolting" flour was the arduous multi-stage process of separating wheat into flour and bran.   Apparently New Yorkers were quite adept at it since one of Andros' main arguments for the law was that it was needed to ensure a consistent and high quality product. With bolting, barrel-making became a booming island industry.

    Had the decree not come about it’s hard to say how much New York's run up to power would have been affected later on. The Erie Canal stood on the shoulders of previous booms, just as the flour boom stood on the shoulders of the beaver trade. Its benefits to Manhattan were nothing short of mind boggling.  Stokes Iconography sums it up from a written complaint lodged by a New Yorker lamenting the 1694 repeal of the pro-Manhattan law. (The "Bolting Act," a term often attributed to the law itself, was actually appears to have been the repeal of the law that would release the outlying areas from Manhattan's firm economic grip.)  It may be ironic that the author of these words was formulating a complaint, but that's classic New York...
    When the city enjoyed the bolting monopoly several advantages accrued to this city and province. In 1678, when the bolting began, there were only 343 houses in New York. By 1696, 594 new buildings had been added. This increase is to be attributed to the bolting. The revenue in the years 1678, '79, and '80 did not exceed £2,000; but after that it increased annually until it amounted in 1687 to £5,000.... In 1678, there were three ships, eight sloops and seven boats belonging to this port; in 1694, there were 60 ships, 62 sloops, and 40 boats.... In 1678, not over 400 [beaver] were killed; in 1694, nearly 4,000. Lands were low-priced during those years; since then they have advanced to ten times their value. Of the 983 houses in New York, 600 depend upon bolting.
    In 16 years the port went from owning 18 seaworthy vessels to 142, mostly due to sifting flour.  Andros' laws did for Manhattan what the Erie Canal would do 125 years later: triple the economy in a few years and put Manhattan in the enviable position of middleman. So the flour barrel got its place on the seal.

    The windmill's connection to the Dutch is not necessarily a given; when it first appears on the seal we were under English rule, and windmills were popular there, too. But the 1686 seal, when it first appears, was the first seal created by New Yorkers themselves. And since there were many Dutch in positions of authority, and many of them had windmills on their coats-of-arms, it probably does symbolize Dutch heritage.  But the best argument can be found in the position of the windmill's arms, they mimic the saltire, or St. Andrew's Cross, and three saltires arranged vertically was the official Dutch emblem.  

    The evolution of the seal.

    1623. The seal of the Province of New Netherland--not specifically New Amsterdam.  New Netherland stretched from parts of Connecticut to Delaware. The beaver is surrounded by a string of wampum, which, along with beaver, could be used as currency. SIGILLUM NOVI BELGII translates to "Seal of the New Belgium."  Belgium was once part of the Netherlands, and 30 French Walloon families (future Belgians) were the first large group delivered to settle the land and work for the Dutch West India Company.  

    surrogate ct newest The arcade of Surrogate's Court, 1907 (aka the Hall of Records), is adorned with a few faithfully reproduced historical seals. On this earliest one, you can just make out the wampun along the left edge of the shield.

    The Municipal Building, 1914, focuses on the main elements. Actually, as Pine notes, not the seal but "the arms of New Netherland, New Amsterdam and New York are repeated many times on the new Municipal Building." (Pine, p. 22)

    99 Jane Street in the Village has a public space that exhibits two seals, the earliest and what was thought to be the latest versions. They are, nonetheless, handsomely done.

    1654. Still Dutch. When city leaders petitioned for and were granted municipal government, the directors of the West India Company sent the city its very own coat-of-arms. At the very top is the insignia of the West India Company (small G, large W, small C). A beaver rests atop a shield emblazoned with three Xs, known as a saltires, or St. Andrew's crosses (in the same position as the windmill’s arms). Below the shield, SIGILLUM AMSTELODAMENSIS IN NOVO BELGIO translates to "Seal of Amsterdam in New Belgium."

    Surrogate's Court does another accurate reproduction...

    ...while the Municipal Building streamlines it, presenting only the saltire arms.

    1669. When the English took over in 1664 the seal underwent a radical revamp. King Charles II gave New York (and other lands) to his brother James, then Duke of York, who issued two seals: one for the Province and one for the City of New York. This is the provincial seal; the city seal is apparently lost to history. 

    The Province of New York extended over "all the land from the west side of the Connectecutte River to the East side of De la Ware Bay.'" (Pine, p. 8)  The coat-of-arms in the center belongs to the House of Stuart, and the small crown (a coronet) is emblematic of James, then a Duke. The inner circle, HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, translates as "Evil to him who thinks evil." The outer ring, SIGILL PROVINCE NOVI EBORAC says  "seal of the Province of New York."

    Perhaps because this was the provincial, and not the lost city seal, Surrogate's Court skips this seal, ...

    ...though the Municipal Building pays tribute to the House of Stuart.

    1686. The Dongan Charter of 1686 re-affirmed, in more substantive form, the municipal rights granted to the city earlier in 1664, when the English took over. (But, and this will be important later, the 1664 city government was simply a continuation of the municipal government granted to the city under Dutch rule back in 1654!). With the Dongan Charter, though, city officials were allowed to create their own seal.  And there's an interesting anachronism here.  The coronet should have been changed to a crown when James ascended the throne in 1685. This seal has the Dongan Charter year of 1686, but is emblazoned with a coronet, a year after James ascended the throne in 1685. 

    This virtually identical seal is correct in both date and royal head gear, for in 1686 James was King. In fact the only difference appears to be the crown…

    Another point of interest is that while it's often reported that the cross-staff was introduced in 1915, it can be clearly seen in the sailor's right hand in both of these early seals.  It was actually re-introduced later.

    Surrogate's Court handles the confusion just fine and coordinates the year and crown correctly: 1686, with a royal crown. But notice the sailor has lost his cross-staff!  
    use iiii

    1784. After the Revolution the Common Council ordered a single change to the seal: an eagle on top of a "semi-globe" rising toward the sailor was to replace the royal crown. The year "1686" remained (maybe the Dongan Charter was more attractive than the Articles of Confederation?). Here is where the cross-staff was lost. In addition to the eagle, though, the shield's shape has changed (notice the Surrogate’s Court image above does have the older shield shape), and now there's a lot of foliage sprouting around the top.

    In 1907 Surrogate's Court patriotically expunges “1686” from the seal image, the cross-staff is still missing, and the shape of the shield matches the 1784 version. But notice the Eagle is facing the other direction!

    The last major change came in 1915 (after many buildings, including Surrogate’s, had been built and adorned with the city seal). Why that year? To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the City's municipal government when a mayor, aldermen and sheriff retained a semblance of power under the English crown.  Thing was, the English had adopted New Amsterdam's municipal government of 1654 whole sale, basically giving the Schout, Burgomaster and Schepen English names. (With this in mind, in 1977, the City Council would make one slight change, and 1664 would become 1625, not for the year of New Amsterdam’s municipal government, but the year the Dutch first settled Manhattan, or so they thought--does it ever end?).  Anyway, 1915…

    1915. All standards for the seal had been lost by this time.  Buildings and monuments (including Surrogate’s Court) had the sailor, Native American, and eagle doing all sorts of unconventional things. It was decided on this important anniversary that a uniform seal needed to be used consistently throughout the city, and the year 1664 was chosen for being the first time the name "New York" was used. To create the seal, they cracked open the archives and history books, and now the cross-staff has returned, the eagle faces the sailor, and though they did away with the foliage, they went back to the English version of the shield’s shape.  Paul Manship designed this, our official seal.

    Here are some versions of the (pre-1977) seal on buildings throughout the city...

      A High School on the CCNY campus uptown displays an accurate and faithful representation of the official seal in every detail. 

    This is the Landmark Preservation Commission's plaque on the Bowling Green fence.

    The Louis Lefkowitz State Office Building, 80 Centre Street, 1930. The year 1664 is there, just very tiny.

    99 Jane Street again. Because it was installed after 1977, the date should read 1625. Still, beautiful piece of work.

    There are great examples of builders and sculptors taking liberties with the seal prior to 1915.  In John Buckley Pine's account of the seal's history, he goes off on an entertaining riff about the vagaries the seal was subjected to. I considered inserting [Native American] for "Indian," but since it's already been noted...
    In woodcuts of the beaver these animals sometimes appear like dogs and sometimes like pigs with pointed snouts. The Indian is represented with a western war-bonnet on his head, or baldheaded....He shifts uneasily from the sinister side to the dexter side, and when he gets tired he sits down. The dexter supporter is equally unreliable in his conduct and more uncertain as to nationality and occupation.... He exchanges places with the Indian from time to time, strikes different aesthetic attitudes and keeps the Indian company in sitting down occasionally. He also keeps progress with the times in nautical science. He discards the old cross-staff [remember the cross-staff had vanished and so was not available to sculptors or builders!] and contents himself for a while with the lead-line....The eagle, too, is restless on his perch, as perhaps is to be expected of a liberty loving eagle. In 1784 he is rising to the dexter, as required by law, but in the 19th century he mounts in the other direction. Generally he looks where he is going, but occasionally he looks backward to see if he is being followed, as has been his habit of late years. Just after the Revolution, some flowers sprang up around the eagle, but with the increasing population of the City the opportunities for gardening have grown less and the flowers have disappeared, together with the old date 1686 which was retained for a while in the same seal.
    And here are a few.  If you know of others around town, let me know and I will add them!…
    135 Charles Street, 1897. Le Gendarme apartments, the 9th police precinct until 1971. As they appear to lean on the shield, the sailor holds an oar and the eagle rises toward the center.

    Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, 1902. Perhaps because the monument was to recognize Civil War veterans, it would have been uncouth to spotlight a sailor from another era. Here, both "supports" definitely relax on the shield, and the dexter holds a shovel! 
    The seal put to rest in 1915.  The eagle looks again to the left, no cross-staff, and it's questionable whether the figure is a sailor at all.
    Gas co new

    226 West Broadway, formerly the Fire Department's High Pressure Services headquarter, 1918. Built during an apparent period of seal chaos, the sailor and Native American lean on the shield with a left facing eagle.  Though the sailor's forearm is missing, you can see a plummet neatly wrapped in his floating fist.  

    PS 3 on Grove Street in the Village.  Though the school was definitely constructed after 1915, an explanation for the nonconformist seal might be found on the school’s own self-described history from their website:  “The current PS 3, also known as the John Melser Charrette School, is very much a child of the 1960's, which is one reason you may occasionally hear it referred to as the 'hippie school.'”  No cross-staff, leaning figures, eagle facing the wrong way.

    But what are you going to say when the police department does this…

    I think the “sailor” is wearing a top hat here.

    Here is the single post-1977 public display I could find of the official seal, with the official year of 1625. It is on the Emigrant Savings Bank...

       ...only thing is...

                                                                                                                                           ...the date's wrong.

    Added 2/16/11

    Two more examples of the seal around town...

    This one is from the City Water Department at 179th And Amsterdam...a pretty sad seal.  Not so ironically, it looks to have a lot of water stains.

    But here's a gorgeous example..and the one other seal in public that has the year "1625."  It's on 33rd Precinct at 170th and Amsterdam.

    (added 3/6/2011)

    Not a seal per se, but a sculpture that certainly picks up the theme--and was quite liberal with it, at 58 Bowery (1924, Clarence Brazer).  Originally Citizen's Savings Bank, it's the HSBC at Canal and the Bowery, across from the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge. These guys are really taking a break--most significantly, they've swapped positions!


    1. Very interesting. Two remarks. While three saltires appear in the arms of the City of Amsterdam, they are by no means the symbol of the Netherlands as a whole. The arms of the Netherlands feature a lion clutching seven arrows and a sword. Indeed, the 1654 grant could be considered a differenced version of the "old" Amsterdam arms.
      You translate Nova Belgia as New Belgium. At the time, i.e. before the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830, Belgia was used in Latin for the Low Countries as a whole. Belgia Regia (Royal ~) was used to refer to the Southern Netherlands ruled by Habsburg Austria, present-day Belgium, while Belgia Foederata (Federal ~) referred to the northern Republic of the Seven United Provinces, present-day Kingdom of the Netherlands. I presume New Netherlands would be a less anachronistic translation.

      Ewout, Rotterdam

      1. Agreed . The upper and lower provinces of old Holland are two separate republics now . I still like seeing Sigillum Novi Belgii nostalgically displayed on New York
        buildings . Thanks .

    2. I just purchased an old iron seal with 4 bolt holes on the back. It measures about 18" in diam. and is about 2" thick. It is said to have been used as a rain gutter splash guard for the past 40 years in NYC and just turned up in Phoenix, AZ. How can I find out more info on my purchase? Thanks, Steve

      1. (repost since firefox seems to have a problem on this site)

        The cast iron seals came from the old WestSide (Miller) highway alongside Manhattan's West edge. There were approximately 5,000 of them made in five designs, each lettered on the back A through E, so approximately 1,250 of each design were made.

        They were very crudely sand cast and they are not particularly worth much- since over 5,000 of them were made they are by no means rare. They were cast in the 1920s from models made by sculptor Rene Chambellain.
        I've seen many come up for sale at live auctions, ebay, antique and salvage outfits. As far as worth goes, the one that I saw up for bids in a California auction with the bid opening at $75 didn't even get any bids on it, a salvage outfit in NY had/may still have one for sale that they had on their web site for years priced at $500, it certainly didn't move very fast if it did wind up being sold.

        At one time I had over 30 of them, sold them off with the rest of my artifacts collection but over the years purchased 3, I'm looking for the one with the year "1686" on it.
        The city store in NYC (defunct now) had a bunch of these seals for sale in the 90s when they were removed during demolition, they had them priced at I believe $100 as found, and $125 for sandblasted.
        To me the best design is the "1664" one, the "1669" version that only has ribbons and words on it was BORING as heck, never liked that one! the beaver one was a little better but still boring, the "1664" and the "1686" were the best designs, the "1664" is the one I associate with NEW YORK CITY.

      2. Hi. I bought one of the "1686" seals from City Books in about 1983... I've since had it cleaned once and clear-coated on the front, though the back is original. Glad to hear more about the value. Bought a silver replica of a seal with a rattle insert for my wife as well, and she still wears it every so often. I keep the seal propped next to our fireplace.

      3. هاي سلام عليكم انا امتلك نسخه اصليه من هذا الختم وبحاله حيده

    3. Hello, i also have a cast iron Seal Of The City of New York, letter D. in the set, i believe it is from the Westside Highway area. This piece has made it's way through a farm house fire in the Sandhills area of western nebraska, now only an hour away from our capitol city. Thank you for the very informative article.

    4. Cool! I love the photo of the Citizens savings bank clock, I'd never put 2 and 2 together that this is a reference to the seal.


      Check out this version which is part of the collection at Winterthur in Delaware.

    6. Thanks for the best resource I could find for this information. Here's a version in the stained glass dome of the Appellate Division Courthouse.

    7. And from a mural in the Appellate Division Courthouse.

    8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    17. Wonderful! Great resource, thanks! I love the 99 Jane Street version of the New Netherland seal. By the way, the seal of New Netherland is very beautiful and powerful in its simplicity. I say we bring it back, and get rid of the 'British' NYC seal which is so overloaded. A seal, like a logo, needs to be simple, recognizable and memorable. The New Netherland seal is all of that!

    18. The Jane St seals are the cast iron medallions that used to adorn the old elevated West Side Highway. I think there were four different ones and I remember how I used to examine them when I was a boy because we were stuck in traffic at a snail's pace. Years later, after the highway was torn down, the seals were saved and sold (with or without paint) in the City Store on Chambers Street. I wanted on, but they were for pick-up only and they were too heavy for me to carry. I eventually had to settle, years later, for a plaster reproduction.

      1. You probably bought that reproduction from me as to my knowledge I'm the only one who made casts, of the 1664 design anyway.

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    20. according to the National Park Service, the 1624 date is correct.

    21. Do you know if the old town/village of Flushing, New York had its own official seal? I'm conducting research into the early history of Flushing and would appreciate any clues. Thanks!

    22. I have a 1664 5x3 inch City of New York Police medallion. I would love find some history on it. Can anyone help? Thank you.

    23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    25. The seals in the public space of 99 Jane Street once decorated the West Side Highway. The seals had been offered for sale by the City of New York when the Highway was demolished in the early 1980s.

      There is a very grand city seal on the façade of the Jefferson Market Library, Sixth Ave. & W. 10th St. Many city public schools also sport the city seal. The City of the Museum of New York shows examples of the seal through its several incarnations on its Fifth Ave. façade.

      The reason for the change in date on the seal, from 1664 to 1625, is that a city official, a man of Irish ancestry, hated the British so strongly that he wanted to deny them an official recognized connection with the City, preferring to acknowledge the City’s origins as Nieuw Amsterdam.

      1. I thought it was just that they wanted to mark a 350th anniversary.

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