The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Behind the Title: Why The Beehive?

If you've ever looked closely at the woodwork over the fireplace in Ellis Hall (better known as the Reading Room), you may have noticed there the seal of the Society, which also appears in the masthead of this blog, and on the title pages of various Society publications. The design features a beehive with several honeybees buzzing around it; an inscription above reads "Sic Vos Non Vobis" (which translates roughly to "you work, but not for yourselves").

Our seal dates from late 1833, when MHS President John Davis was charged by the members to "prepare a device for a seal for the Society." Davis obliged, presenting the design in its current form on 27 February 1834. The quote is from the Roman poet Virgil's response to another poet, Bathyllus, who had claimed credit for a pro-Caesar verse penned (and posted anonymously) by Virgil.

The entire rejoinder reads:

Hos ego versiculos feci, tulit alter honores; / Sic vos non vobis fertis aratra boves; / Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes; / Sic vos non vobis vellera fertis oves; /Sic vos non vobis nidificatis aves.

That is, I wrote these lines; another has borne away the honor; / Thus do ye, oxen, for others bear the yoke; / Thus do ye, bees, for others make honey; / Thus do ye, sheep, wear fleece for others; / Thus do ye, birds, for others make nests.

As former MHS director Stewart Mitchell wrote in 1949, it would hardly have done to compare the members of the Society to oxen, sheep, or birds ... "but bees had always had a good reputation for the sweetness and light of their honey and their wax," and made a fitting symbol for the Society's mission. And according to MHS member Charles Deane's remarks at a March 1877 meeting of the Society, Virgil's line "has always been regarded as a favorite motto for quotation, to indicate devoted and disinterested labor, that is to say, for the good of others ...".

Judge Davis' seal has stood the tests of time, although the members briefly considered abandoning it in 1857 in favor of a new design. It was decided that "to discard [the seal] for a new one, merely because the latter is better suited to the present advanced state of art, would afford a precedent for continued changes, in order to keep pace with the progress of improvement. Such changes weaken the confirmative proof derived from a corporate seal and might even bring its identity or genuineness into question, to the detriment or hazard of corporate interests. There is, besides, a certain degree of respect, commonly entertained for the antiquity of a seal, which should be cherished by a Society like ours." The source of the motto was called into question in 1881, when member Henry Haynes presented a paper challenging Virgil's authorship of the poem. Haynes concluded "I fear that [our motto's] paternity, instead of being as respectable as has been imagined, is in fact rather dubious." Haynes' argument does not seem to have gained much traction, however, and the MHS (along with the rest of the world) continues to attribute the verse to Virgil.

There is some question, however, of Davis' inspiration for the seal's design. As early as 1791 MHS founder Jeremy Belknap had beehives on the brain: among his papers is a note pertaining to a seal: "For the Historical Society a Beehive - supported by two Beavers" with the motto "Nil magnum sine labore" ("nothing great is done without labor"). (It should be said that Belknap later mused about a seal which would feature "a flying eagle - a ranging wolf - and a shark - all seeking their prey.") Belknap never formally proposed either of his ideas, and it is not known whether Davis knew of them in the 1830s.

Several other precedents for the MHS device are known, as Mr. Deane noted way back in 1877. In John Dunton's literary periodical The Compleat Library (1692-94) a device on the title page (below left) includes a beehive and the bannered inscription "Sic nos non nobis mellificamus apes" (the line containing our motto, converted to first person). And on the frontispiece to the eighth volume of John Nichols' Literary Anecdotes (1814), another beehive (below right), this one with the exact inscription later used for the MHS seal.

Coincidence?? You be the judge.

Regardless of where it came from, there you have it: the story behind The Beehive. I think the image really does capture what we're all about here at the MHS. Just as the Society's members always have, those of us who work here today labor not for ourselves, but for others.


For further reading:
- Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society Volume 1 (1791-1835), pp. 483-488.
- Charles Deane, "Remarks on the Seal of the Society." Proceedings Volume 15 (1876-1877), pp. 256-258.
- Henry Haynes, "[On the authorship of the Society's motto.]" Proceedings Volume 18 (1880-1881), pp. 402-404.
- Stewart Mitchell, Handbook of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1791-1948. Boston: MHS, 1949, p. 8.
- Louis Leonard Tucker, The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991. Boston: MHS, 1995, pp. 58-61.

permalink | Published: Thursday, 30 April, 2009, 1:00 PM


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