1843-1895 The Minerva Seals

The Minerva seal was authorized by the Regents in 1843, six years after the university moved to Ann Arbor. Its device and legend as described in the minutes of the Regents:

Minerva pointing a youth to the Temple of Wisdom, surrounded with the inscription, "University of Michigan," and "MINERVA MONSTRAT ITER QUAQUE OSTENDIT SE DEXTRA SEQUAMUR"

University of Michigan Trustees Meetings, 1821-1837, University of Michigan Board of Regents, Box 1, BHL

[Image of original minutes]

To Frank Robbins the Minerva seal also presented a mystery: what were its origins? After considerable research and letter writing, he published his conclusions in a 1937 Michigan Alumnus article. [Michigan Alumnus Oct. 2 1937, p.5-6]

[Text of Robbins' article]

The original Minerva seal was presented to the Regents by Regent Jonathan Kearsley on April 5, 1843. Robbins decided that the Kearsley design was based on the frontispiece of the 1839 reissue of Noah Webster's speller. In 1829 Webster's speller had been revised and given the new name of The Elementary Spelling Book and issued in blue paper-covered boards which gave it its familiar name of the "blue back speller."

Frontispiece of 1839 reissue of Noah Webster's The Elementary Speller

The frontispiece, according to Robbins, has all of the components of the Minerva seal. Minerva with a young person pointing with her right hand up a hill to the left of the design; on the hill, in the frontispiece, is a Pantheon-like temple with the inscription "Knowledge" on the architrave of the gable in front and "Fame" below the round dome behind; in the seal it is a simpler, round temple, with "Sophia" ("wisdom") in Greek letters above the columns.

Next Robbins hypothesized about the Latin motto used by Kearsley and decided it was a revision of line 388 of the second book of Virgil's Aeneid. The original translated as

"Friends," said he, "where first the chance of escape shows a way, and where her hand points, let us follow."

Robbins decided that Kearsley had substituted Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, for Vergil's "fortuna salutis," the hand of fortune, and gave the quotation an entirely different meaning.

Minerva seals stamps

Impressions made from two versions of the 1843 Minerva Seals found in the Office of the President, September 1995.

1843 Minerva Seal

The Minerva seal went through at least one major recutting in 1865 and one minor one. As first adopted, a straight line divided the motto from the design.

1866 Minerva Seal

The later seal has a curved line below the design and the boy's figure looks quite different. The last cutting includes the curved line but adds more stars in the outer margin and several other differences in detail.