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The Story of Stanford's Heraldry

In response to a personal request from University President J. E. Wallace Sterling, Professor Eric Hutchinson (Department of Chemistry) designed the official coats of arms and flags for the academic departments. President Sterling wished to streamline the commencement services as well as add a festive air, and the use of flags or banners representing the schools was seen as an effective way to achieve both aims.

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J.E. Wallace Sterling, left, and Eric Hutchinson display the flag Hutchinson designed for the School of Earth Sciences. Hutchinson finished designing the shields and flags for all seven schools at the university in 1967. Photograph by Chuck Painter, Stanford News Service.

The British-born Hutchinson (1920-2005), who was also a calligrapher and manuscript illuminator, chose the shapes and symbols based on long-standing heraldic traditions as well as on more recent innovations, such as the use of colors to represent academic disciplines.

Hutchinson’s banners reflect his interest in heraldic art as a means of communication via a highly specialized logical system based on symbols — much like his field of chemistry.

Professor Hutchinson also designed the crests in this exhibit, never executed, which illustrate the word play often associated with heraldic imagery. For example, the crest for the School of Education displays a fox cub, since the school is located in Cubberley Hall.

Hutchinson's heraldry designs were highlighted in a special issue of Sandstone and Tile, a publication of the Stanford Historical Society.

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Professor Eric Hutchinson and Lilian Hutchinson at work, 1980. Photograph by Chuck Painter for Stanford News Service. Published in Sandstone & Tile, Vol. 20: 2-3 (1996), Stanford Historical Society.

Uniting the Seven Schools under the Redwood Frond

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"Argent, a triple redwood frond slipped, gules" describes in heraldic terms the redwood frond, cut off at the base and depicted in red against a white background. The triple redwood frond representing the organization, transmission, and generation of knowledge that takes place in the schools and on which the scholarly growth of the university depends, is common to all the school flags.

Trees in general are popular elements in heraldic imagery and can convey many meanings depending on the type of tree, its position, whether it is flowering or bearing fruit, and so forth. Even a stump or dead tree, which would seem less than auspicious symbols, can appear as representations of strength, perseverance, and regrowth.

Coats of Arms

School of Earth Sciences

The Earth Sciences shield features narrow triangles and a lion. The upper tips of the triangles represent mountains, the lower tips underground mines. The lion is an ancient alchemical symbol for gold, and also harkens back to Herbert Hoover, who mined gold in Australia.

School of Education

An open book and a lamp of learning are found on the shield of the School of Education.

School of Engineering

A flexible, expandable string of diamonds called a mascle signifies the ability of the School of Engineering to grow in response to scientific and public needs.

School of Humanities and Sciences

The extent to which the School of Humanities and Sciences directs the studies of the majority of Stanford students is represented by a large red diagonal cross. Ermine has been used for centuries in making academic robes in Europe. The black ermine tails recall the ermine-trimmed hoods commonly worn by medieval scholars.

School of Law

Ermine-trimmed robes also are traditionally associated with justice; the shield represents the dual concerns of law and justice.

School of Medicine

The traditional Aesculapian staff and entwined serpent of medicine appear on the school's flag, along with the "linked squares" arcade and window design that is prevalent in the medical center.

Graduate School of Business

The lion on the Graduate School of Business flag has a knotted tail, along with a true knot that illustrates the unifying function of management. The fact that the first dean of the school was from an Eastern family that had a lion on its coat of arms also played a part in this design.

Graduate Division

The graduate division design employs triangles and ermine tails. In this case the triangles represent the appearance of hoods appropriate for Stanford degrees. The seven ermine tails stand for the seven schools in the division.

Hutchinson's Version of the Stanford Seal

Hutchinson also created his own colorful version of the Stanford University Seal, one that sadly was not adopted for official use.

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Stanford University. University Seal (unadopted design), 1967

The Origins of Hutchinson's Heraldry

The term “heraldry” refers to the study of armorial bearings, the unique designs or images used to represent a person or family, institution, or state. First appearing on the battlefields of medieval Europe as a means to identify warriors, the early use of heraldic symbols on shields and banners soon developed into a set of complex practices and rules that spread throughout all levels of society.

When creating a heraldic device, a herald follows the rules of blazon, which is the formal description and specialized language that defines the individual elements of the emblem. Important aspects in defining a heraldic device include the color or pattern (tincture) present on the field or background color; the charges, or symbolic representations of people, animals, plants, objects, or other designs; the aspects of the charges such as color or position, as well as the motto, crest, and other accessories.

While Professor Hutchinson described heraldry as “a logical system whereby the use of a small number of symbols leads to a complete and unambiguous recognition of a person, a family or an organization,” many images used in heraldry require elaborate interpretation in order to be properly understood.

Browse more of Professor Hutchinson's designs.