Unzipping Your Coat of Arms
8/4/2010
Before you shell out for a family coat of arms, check our primer and learn how you can discover if you really have heraldry in your heritage.
Offers promising your family coat of arms arrive unsolicited in your mailbox. Vendor carts hawk heraldry in shopping malls. Gift catalogs and family history novelty shops sell “crests.” You can even download them from the Internet. They are colorful, attractive and suitable for framing. Some even come with a generic history of your surname. In our supposedly classless, egalitarian society, nobility wannabes are fueling a craze for that symbolic representation of a person's heritage known as a coat of arms, often mistakenly called a “family crest.” Rare is the family historian who doesn't hope to be descended from an ancestor who was armigerous (that is, according to Webster's, “bearing heraldic arms”).

These appeals to the would-be armigerous have been around for years. When a postcard arrived in my parents' mailbox promising our alleged family crest, it wasn't all that expensive, so they sent for it. Even as a youngster, however, I knew, as did my parents, that this was a bogus offer. No, it wasn't because we were especially savvy, or because other families were also getting them and it was obvious this was a mass mailing. It was because my father had changed our surname years earlier to make it sound, well, more American. So we went from the romantic Italian surname DeBartolo to the plain-vanilla Bart. Yet the offer that enticed us with an exquisite coat of arms and enlightening us about our noble heritage was for our adopted and pseudonymous “Bart.” (We knew the DeBartolos descended from the peasant class, so we had no false hopes.)

Our certificate arrived—you guessed it—suitable for framing. The coat of arms looked as if it came directly from the queen's royal herald himself. Though printed in an unappealing brown ink on faux parchment, it described the Bart Coat of Arms as silver, having a blue middle band with a gold fleur-de-lis in the center; two black anchors crossed on top of the band, and in the base was a red lion, “in profile walking.” Wow. I think we held our heads just a smidge higher the day it arrived. We also got a distinguished history of the Bart surname, dating to the Middle Ages and claiming the name was—what's this?—of English or possibly German origin. (Our beloved peasant Italian ancestors must have been spinning in their graves.) Finally came the fine print: “No genealogical representation is intended or implied by this report and it does not represent individual lineage or your family tree.” Now, why didn't this surprise us?