The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has many symbols associated with it, from the Tar Heel footprint to the silhouette of the Old Well. One of the most formal UNC visual components is the University’s ornamental seal. While you may see images of the seal around campus (more on this later) use of the seal is primarily reserved for official University documents, such as diplomas or transcripts. The seal is an emblem of the University, designed for formal occasions to represent the ideals of this home of higher education.
The official ornamental seal of the University has gone through four major revisions since it was first created. Provision of the seal dates back to a meeting of the Board of Trustees held at Fayetteville from November 15 through 27 in 1790. On motion of John Hay, a committee was appointed to form a device for the common seal. This committee included seven men, including Hay and Chairman William Lenoir.
By July 20, 1791, the seal had been designed, completed and delivered. They chose the face of Apollo, the God of Eloquence, and his emblem the rising sun “as expressive of the dawn of higher education in our State.” This first seal of UNC was used on documents and diplomas until 1895.
On the seal, the face of Apollo was placed at the center facing straight ahead and surrounded by rays of light. Around the outside read the Latin inscription “Sigil Universitat Carol Septent” (literally meaning “The Symbol of the University of North Carolina”).
The next revision appeared in 1895 under President George Winston. The seal kept the face of Apollo, but turned his head to profile. The Latin inscription changed just slightly from “Sigil” to “Sigillum” and Apollo gained a crown of leaves on his head. This seal was used only briefly in the Catalogue, from 1894 through 1896.
In 1897, Dr. E.A. Alderman became President and called for a new seal. The June 1, 1897 minutes for the Board of Trustees describe the proposed new look for the seal: “On a tinted circle there appear the words Sigillum Universitat Carol Septent. Within the open space there is a tinted shield with a diagonal white band. One the shield are the words “Lux” and “Libertas.” In the open spaces there are burning torches.”
Thus Apollo was removed from the shield for this third revision. It also added the University motto of “Lux Libertas” meaning “Light and Liberty.”
This seal was nearly identical to the seal used today, but a keen eye may decipher one key difference. This third iteration of the seal was used from 1896 through 1944. At this point, controversy arose over the band on the shield included in the seal.
In traditional heraldry, the “bend” denotes the stripe running across the shield. A traditional bend is supposed to run from the upper dexter corner of the shield (the bearer’s right side and the viewer’s left) to the lower sinister corner of the shield. This is called a “bend dexter.” By some mistake, the bend included on the University seal shield was crossing in the wrong direction, from the upper sinister corner to the lower dexter.
This is referred to as a “bend sinister” and has popularly but incorrectly been thought to imply the stigma of illegitimacy for those who bore such a shield. In actuality, it meant that the bearer was a second or later son who could not inherit his father’s estate. However, the stigma was popular and so many people complained to the university that they changed the direction of the bend in 1944. The change was made under the direction of Controller William D. Carmichael Jr. who wished to remove all implications of illegitimacy, however erroneous, concerning the bend.
This is the current University seal that has been in place since 1944. The seal used by the University Press on its bookplate actually changed prior to the University’s seal (in around 1925). The University Library also changed their bookplate design prior to 1944.
However, an eagle-eyed visitor to the University campus may be able to spot the third version of the seal (with the bend sinister) in a few locations. One such location is on the front of Wilson Library, which was built in 1929. It is engraved in the columns above the front porch. At the time of its engraving, this was the officially correct seal but it now stands as a testimony to the prior design and the unique history of this seal. An alumnus wrote to a local newspaper in 1974, complaining about the “bend sinister” seal on Wilson Library, writing: “Beloved Alma Mater should always be scrupulously legitimate.”