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Strange Whims of Crest Fiends: Marketing Heraldry in the United States, 1880–1980

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2015

Research Division, Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec. Email:


The display of a “family crest” to signal family identity is prevalent in the contemporary United States. However, during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, many American commentators perceived the widespread use of heraldry by the high bourgeoisie as at best a mark of social pretension and at worst a symptom of an un-American predilection for aristocracy. Over the course of a century, heraldic entrepreneurs sought to broaden the market for family crests, and in doing so Americanized heraldic practice. The early projects of Albert Welles, Frank Allaben and Frances M. Smith linked heraldry with new approaches to genealogical research and encouraged its use by a broad cross section of American society. In the late twentieth century, entrepreneur Gary Halbert sold millions of heraldic mementos that epitomized the modern commodification of history and identity. The result of a century of marketing is an American heraldry that is both more accessible than its European antecedents and less closely tied to verifiable genealogical relationships.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2015 

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10 Morgan makes a similar point for genealogy as Bushman does for consumer culture more generally: Morgan, “A Noble Pursuit?” 144; Bushman, 420–25.

11 On the prevalence and legitimacy of “free assumption” of arms in continental Europe see Pastoureau, Michel, Traité d'héraldique, 2nd edn (Paris: Picard, 1993)Google Scholar, 60, 66, 84. In some eastern European countries, notably Poland, identical coats of arms may be borne by all members of the same herb, or “clan”; see Rowell, S. C., “The Central European Kingdoms,” in Abulafia, David, ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 776Google Scholar. In Scotland, members of the same clan may bear a common badge, usually consisting of the crest and motto of the clan chief. However, Scottish coats of arms, as distinct from clan badges, are borne by individuals; see Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Scots Heraldry, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1956), 46Google Scholar.

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14 Weil, Family Trees, 5–7.

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16 “Makes Strange Use of Curio,” San Francisco Call, 17 Feb. 1904; Gell, Alfred, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6, 95Google Scholar; Veblen, 47.

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18 “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, 1669,” Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014; Godfrey, Walter H. with Wagner, Sir Anthony, Survey of London Monograph 16: College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street (London: London Survey Committee, 1963), 246Google Scholar; Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 2nd Session, 12 Dec. 1867, 158; “Where American Heraldry Is Weak,” New York Times, 23 Sept. 1899; Crozier, William Armstrong, Crozier's General Armory: A Registry of American Families Entitled to Coat Armor (New York: Fox, Duffield & Co., 1904)Google Scholar, vii; “Coats of Arms: Many Like to Display Them Regardless of the Rules,” New York Tribune Illustrated Supplement, 9 April 1905; “Other Heraldry than English,” New York Times, 21 Oct. 1899; Joseph Fitch, “Where American Heraldry Is Weak,” New York Times, 30 Sept. 1899.

19 “Andrew Carnegie Designs a Coat-of-Arms,” San Francisco Call, 28 Sept. 1905.

20 “Modern Heraldry,” Boston Daily Advertiser, 22 Sept. 1859, emphasis in original.

21 “Heraldry in America,” Daily Champion (Aitchison, KS), 24 Nov. 1887; “Crests for American Snobs,” Salt Lake City Tribune, 27 May 1888; “New Publications: American Coats of Arms,” New York Times, 28 Jan. 1895; “A Herald's College in America,” New York Herald, 11 Oct. 1844; “Heraldry,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), 6 March 1846; “Coats-of-Arms $50; Choose Your Own,” New York Times, 25 May 1907; “College of Heralds Wroth over Criticism,” San Francisco Call, 5 May 1901; “Family Trees for All,” New York Times, 23 Aug. 1901; “Mr. Parker's Coat of Arms,” New York Times, 20 Aug. 1904.

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24 Welles, Albert, American Family Antiquity, Being an Account of the Origin and Progress of American Families, Traced from Their Progenitors in This Country, Connected with Their History Abroad …, 3 vols. (New York: American College for Genealogical Registry and Heraldry, 1880)Google Scholar; George A. Leavitt & Co., Auctioneers, Catalogue of the Library and Manuscript Genealogies of the American College for Genealogical Registry, Family History and Heraldry … The Whole to Be Sold by Auction … Wednesday, June 27th, 1883, and Following Days … (New York: George A. Leavitt & Co., 1883)Google Scholar, 27, 33.

25 Welles, Albert, The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family: Derived from Odin, the Founder of Scandinavia, B. C. 70, Involving a Period of Eighteen Centuries, and Including Fifty-Five Generations, down to General George Washington, First President of the United States (New York: American College for Genealogical Registry and Heraldry, 1879)Google Scholar.The custom was perpetuated in the late twentieth century by Harold Brooks-Baker, a Washington, DC-born bond trader and self-styled royalty expert whose calculations of the relative royal ancestry of American presidential candidates became a curious recurring feature of election campaign coverage. See Shirley Marlow, “Will Royal Family Tree Sprout a Presidential Bush?” Los Angeles Times, 5 July 1988; “Harold Brooks-Baker” (obituary), Telegraph (London, UK), 8 March 2005.

26 Welles, Albert, American Family Antiquity, Volume II (New York: Society Library, 1881)Google Scholar, 191, 236.

27 Waters, H. F., Genealogical Gleanings in England, Volume I (Boston: New-England Historic Genealogical Society, 1889), 300Google Scholar; “Notes,” The Nation, 12 June 1873, 401–2.

28 “A College in One Room: Exposing a Sham in Heraldry,” New York Tribune, 7 Feb. 1881.

29 “No End of the Bon Ton …,” Galveston Daily News, 15 Feb. 1881. See also “A Pretentious Sham,” Toronto World, 7 Feb. 1881.

30 “Caring Little for Genealogies,” New York Times, 28 June 1883.

31 National Archives and Records Administration, United States Census, 1880, Reel T9-0260, Plainfield, IL, 414; “List of Congregational Ministers in North America, Reported by the Several State Organizations,” Congregational Record, new series, 7 (1875), 182; “The Publishers,” New York Times, 15 April 1905; “Frank Allaben Dead: President of National Historical Society Dies of Heart Disease,” New York Times, 16 Feb. 1927.

32 Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (hereafter NYPL), Allaben–Washburn Papers, Box 1, “National Historical Society” File 1, Certification of Capital Stock, Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, 8 June 1907; Certificate of Incorporation, National Historical Society, 18 Dec. 1915; “New Peace Movement: Patriotic Organizations Combine with Frank Allaben at Head,” New York Times, 16 May 1915; Colophon, Journal of American History, 9, 1 (1915)Google ScholarPubMed, unpaginated. A popular history publication founded in 1905 under the editorship of Civil War historian and pioneer film-maker Francis Trevelyan Miller, this Journal of American History was unrelated to the Organization of American Historians’ publication of the same title, first published in 1964.

33 NYPL, Allaben–Washburn Papers, Box 6, National Historical Society Minute Book, 3 April 1920, 221; “Says Public Backs Assembly's Stand,” New York Times, 3 March 1920; Schoeppfer, C., The Earth Stands Fast, ed. Watts de Peyster, J. and Allaben, Frank (New York: C. H. Ludwig, 1900)Google Scholar; “Astronomy Wrong, He Says,” New York Sun, 22 July 1900.

34 NYPL, Allaben–Washburn Papers, Box 1, “National Historical Society” File 2, Frank Allaben to Hartford Times, 21 May 1919; “Their Advice on Fiume: National Historical Society Follows a Popular Policy,” New York Times, 25 May 1919; Tyrrell, I. R., Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890–1970 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 218Google Scholar.

35 NYPL, Allaben–Washburn Papers, Box 5, “John Burroughs” File, Eugenics Records Office to Allaben, 7 Feb. 1921. The pedigree of naturalist John Burroughs that resulted from this particular collaboration is available at “Pedigree Chart of John Burroughs’ Family,” 1921, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

36 For the byzantine relationship between the Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, the National Historical Society and the National Historical Company see NYPL, Allaben–Washburn Papers, Box 6, National Historical Society Minute Book, 16 Nov. 1915, 5 Jan. 1916, 15 Jan. 1921, 25 Feb. 1926, 21 May 1926.

37 This focus is evident in the publications catalogued in Whitmore, William Henry, The American Genealogist (Albany, NY: Munsell, 1875)Google Scholar.

38 Allaben, Frank, Concerning Genealogies: Being Suggestions of Value for All Interested in Family History (New York: Grafton Press, 1904), 46Google Scholar.

39 Allaben, Frank and Washburn, Mabel, How to Trace and Record Your Own Ancestry (New York: National Historical Company, 1932), 8182 Google Scholar.

40 Mills, William Stowell, Foundations of Genealogy: With Suggestions on the Art of Preparing Records of Ancestry (New York: Monograph Publishing Co., 1899), 3940 Google Scholar. Many examples of ascending genealogies appear in Daughters of the American Revolution, Lineage Book of the Charter Members (Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg Publishing Co., 1895)Google Scholar. For the debate among the Daughters over the relative merits of lineal versus collateral lines see “Proceedings of the Second Continental Congress,” American Monthly Magazine, 3 (1893), 78–104.

41 “American Heraldry,” New York Times, 4 Aug. 1901.

42 Pryor, S. A., “A Search for an Ancestor,” Century: A Popular Quarterly, 49, 6 (1895), 855–64Google Scholar. On Pryor's involvement with filiopietistic societies see Marilyn Elizabeth Perry, “Pryor, Sara Agnes Rice,” in American National Biography, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014; Weil, Family Trees, 133.

43 Reprinted from the Chicago Times in “A Coat of Arms,” Daily Tribune (Bismarck, ND), 20 Feb. 1887.

44 NYPL, Allaben–Washburn Papers, Box 2, “National Historical Society” File, Affidavit of Mabel T. R. Washburn, Feb. 1927.

45 Eleanor Lexington, “A Strawberry Party,” Morning Oregonian (Portland), 16 June 1895; “Guest-Room Verses,” Morning Oregonian (Portland), 26 May 1895; “Swimming Parties,” Weekly Miner (Butte, MT), 3 March 1898; Eleanor Lexington, “A Corner in Ancestors,” Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), 7 June 1903; Frances M. Smith, “About Our Ancestors,” Cinncinati Enquirer, 12 June 1921. That Frances M. Smith and Eleanor Lexington were one and the same is attested in the byline of certain instalments of “A Corner in Ancestors” and in United States, Library of Congress, Catalogue of Copyright Entries: Part 1: Books (Group 2), new series, 6 (1909), 5229.

46 Clark, H. W., Genealogies of the Clark, Parks, Brockman and Dean, Davis and Goss Families in Five Parts (Montgomery, AL: privately printed, 1905), 12 Google Scholar; Eleanor Lexington, “A Corner in Ancestors,” Colfax Chronicle (Colfax, LA), 23 July 1910.

47 Smith, Frances M., “Ancestral Foundations in American History,” Journal of American History, 5 (1911), 459–76Google Scholar, 459; Smith, Colonial Families of America (New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Co., 1909)Google Scholar; Smith, Loomis Family (New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Co., 1909)Google Scholar.

48 “Genealogical Research” (advertisement), and Allaben-Bayles Perfect Family Record” (advertisement), Journal of American History 6, 1 (1912)Google Scholar, second section, n.p.; “Allaben Genealogical Chart” (advertisement), in Allaben and Washburn, How to Trace and Record Your Own Ancestry, n.p.

49 Prices listed in the inside cover of Smith, Loomis Family.

50 For examples of these offerings see “Bookplates: Heraldic and Other Designs” (advertisement), “Heraldic Dies for Stationery” (advertisement), Coats-of-Arms” (advertisement), Journal of American History, 6, 1 (1912)Google Scholar, second section, n.p. See also the advertisement for Smith's research and heraldic art services in J. N. McCue, Henderson Chronicles (Mexico, MO: Missouri Printing and Publishing Co., 1915), n.p.

51 For the dynamics and influence of early newspaper syndicates see Johanningsmeier, Charles, Fiction and the American Literary Marketplace: The Role of Newspaper Syndicates, 1860–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

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53 Institution of an American Record of Heraldry with Three Thousand Authentic Coats-of-Arms,” Journal of American History, 5, 11 (1911), 324Google Scholar.

54 Allaben, Frank, The Ancestry of Leander Howard Crall (New York: Grafton Press, 1908), 2930 Google Scholar.

55 “Thank God Not Everything Printed by the U. S. Government Loses Its Value,” Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly, 29 Sept. 1975; Halbert, Gary, Killer Orgasms: How to Have the Best Sex Humanly Possible (Ocala, FL: privately printed, 2004)Google Scholar. For Halbert's persistent following see, for example, “The Secret Psychology Behind One of the Most Widely Mailed Sales Letters in History Even Today's Best Copywriters Don't See!”, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014; and “Joe Polish shares Gary Halbert Strategies at Dan Kennedy SuperConference,” online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

56 The business model was described succinctly in Gary C. Halbert and Nancy L. Halbert v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1978), T. C. Memo 1978–88; 1978 Tax Ct. Memo LEXIS 428; 37 T.C. M. (CCH) 408; T.C. M. (RIA) 780088.

57 Weil, Family Trees, 182, 190–91; Rangel, M. A., “Some Notes on the Future of American Heraldry,” Coat of Arms, 6, 47 (1961), 285–89Google Scholar.

58 “Judge Gives Man in Bicentennial Fraud 18 Months,” Los Angeles Times, 27 Sept. 1978; Gary C. Halbert and Nancy L. Halbert v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1978), T. C. Memo 1978–88; 1978 Tax Ct. Memo LEXIS 428; 37 T.C. M. (CCH) 408; T.C. M. (RIA) 780088.

59 “Action Express,” Chicago Tribune, 12 June 1974.

60 “Evidence taken in Provincial Court … R. v. Sovereign Seat Cover Manufacturing Co.,” unpublished typescript in the Library of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, Ottawa, 79–81.

61 R. A. Epperson, “Apperson or Epperson?”, Epperson Family Reference, c.2009, at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

62 Robert A. Malseed, “Coat of Arms,” Malseed Genealogy and Family History, c.2007, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

63 J. J. A. Welsman, “The Welsman Memorandums,” Welsman & Milloy Family Tree Pages, 1988, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

64 A prospectus for “Hall of Names” software, a proprietary heraldic production tool used by many shopping mall family crest kiosks and souvenir shops at heritage sites, promises that a sophisticated surname-matching algorithm ensures that “nobody should be turned away!” Swyrich Corporation, “Hall of Names Licensee Program” (2012), online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014, 16.

65 The coats of arms of Canada and of the United Kingdom are examples of quarterings. So too are the seals of the City and County of Los Angeles and the State of Wisconsin.

66, “Tuininga Family Crests,” n.d., online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014; the Gura Family, “Coat of Arms – Gura,” n.d., online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

67 The Swetland Family Association, “Coat of Arms,” 2008, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

68 Scott-Giles, C. Wilfrid, The Romance of Heraldry, rev. edn (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1965), 2Google Scholar; Cheesman, Clive, “Partridges: The History of a Prohibition,” Coat of Arms, 3rd series, 4, 215 (2008), 2962 Google Scholar; Some Aspects of the ‘Crisis of Heraldry’,” Coat of Arms, 3rd series, 6, 2 (2010), 67 Google Scholar.

69 On the assumed heritability of a wide range of character traits see Sweeney, “Ancestors, Avotaynu, Roots.”

70 The inflation corrections for Welles and Allaben's products are based on the 1880, 1910 and 2003 figures in the David-Solar Consumer Price Index Series, Historical Statistics of the United States, Volume III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 158–9Google Scholar, Table Cc-2. Other price figures are derived using the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, online at, accessed 19 Jan. 2014.

71 “Evidence taken in Provincial Court,” 11–12.

72 Lears, No Place of Grace, 302.

73 Weil, Family Trees, 182.

74 Witheridge, John, “Commercial Family History Publications,” Journal of One-Name Studies, 5, 6 (1995), 181–83Google Scholar; Richardson, J. A. C., “What Do Others Think of Us?”, Journal of One-Name Studies, 6, 6 (1998), 135–36Google Scholar. Lists of persons bearing the same surname, culled from telephone books and illustrated with coats of arms, were added to Halbert's offerings in the 1980s. Representative examples from the author's collection include Taylor, Sharon, The Amazing Story of the Valentines in Canada (Bath, OH: Halbert's, 1983)Google Scholar; The Burke's Peerage World Book of Garneaus (Bath, OH: Halbert's Family Heritage, 1994)Google Scholar; and The World Book of Adriaenssens (Bath, OH: Halbert's Family Heritage, 1995)Google Scholar.

75 Victor, Mrs. Rasher's Curtain Lectures, 269–70.

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