Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Faking the Family Tree

Dining room at the Gibson House.
A family crest hangs over the dining room fireplace at the Gibson House. The vivid red and gold shield on a bright black background is eye-catching. Dinner guests would be unlikely to miss its not-so-subtle implications about the importance of the family lineage. In a scroll along the bottom, the motto reads “In the name of Gibson.” 

The tradition of coats of arms (of which the crest is the top part) dates to the medieval period in Europe, where knights would carry shields with specific designs. The design elements were intended to convey the achievements of the person who carried the coat of arms. Later, families would take a coat of arms as the family logo.  Typically, only noble families were permitted to do this and so the coat of arms came to be associated with the aristocracy. 

                 Gibson family crest, c. 1896
 Gibson House Museum 1992.123

 A coat of arms, however, is not given to a surname forever. Official heraldic rules (laid out, with slight variations, by governments across Europe) state that a coat of arms belongs to an individual and his direct descendants in the male line. A true coat of arms was acknowledged and allowed by the king. 

Sketches of coat of arms, 1896.
Gibson House Museum Archives.
The Gibson crest reflects an invented tradition, a family logo created in the moment rather than one being handed down through the generations with the official seal of approval. Rosamond Warren Gibson had this Gibson coat of arms designed in Paris. Original sketches of the design, preserved in the Museum's archives, include some notes about the Gibson ancestor who might lay a claim to nobility. It appears to be John Gibson of York, who petitioned the King in 1655. The notes do not include a source for this bit of family history.

Mary Hammond Family Crest.
Private collection.
Rosamond's sister, Mary Warren Hammond, did the same for her family. Both sisters included water birds (a stork for the Gibsons) on their crest, possibly to represent their shared Warren lineage. (Mary Hammond's crest also includes an elephant, which is a reference to her great-uncle Jacob Crowninshield; he brought the first-ever elephant to America in 1796.) 

In a related example of burnishing the family history, the Warrens paid for genealogical research to create a family tree—a copy hangs in the front hall of the Gibson House. (So, if you're keeping score, that means that by the time guests sat down for dinner, they were subject to demonstrations of Warren AND Gibson family lineage.) It was later discovered that the research was incorrect; the family tree is simply another example of the eagerness of many wealthy 19th century Bostonians to link themselves to English nobility.

For Anglophiles like the Gibsons and Warrens, displaying a family coat of arms, or a family tree, was a way to connect to a medieval English past. In the Victorian era, coats of arms were wildly popular (even if most of them were bunk). It’s not hard to imagine Rosamond and Mary traveling together in Europe and deciding to purchase a coat of arms to bring home, as a souvenir, as a pretty decorative item, and maybe most significantly, as a conversation starter about the family history.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

The coat of arms was recently restored thanks to a generous gift from Robert Severy.

To learn more:

A Complete Guide to Heraldry, Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1909). Via the Gutenberg Project

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