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Bolton’s American Armory: a frank assessment

Tipped into the copy of Charles Knowles Bolton’s Bolton’s American Armory in the reading room of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library is a photocopy of an excerpt from a letter by Horold Bowditch, longtime chair of the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society; it amounts to a review of the book but is decidedly personal and not for publication. The person who typed the excerpt did not state to whom the letter was written, but it is dated 1947—20 years after the Armory came out. Here it is:

Abstracted from a letter written by Harold Bowditch in 1947.

Bolton’s American Armory, 1927. … Bolton was for many years the librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, a very old private library. He had a genius for writing books on many subjects which gave him a reputation among those who did not see very deeply into them; his trouble was that he was too many-sided and too superficial and hurried. As to heraldry, he may be almost said to be an ignoramus; all that he knows of it is what he has gleaned from the popular manuals, and you know what they are. His book is nevertheless useful, for he has undertaken to collect in it as many records as he could find of coats of arms used in America, without going at all into their validity. With this caution in mind the book is userful; but the trouble is that most people do not bother to read his caveat and quote the book as showing a right to arms. When he had written his MS he submitted about a third of it to me for criticism and I found that the corrections were nearly as voluminous as the text! This discouraged him, so he never submitted the rest to my examination. He is a muddle-headed man, and there is one curious thing in his blason: an inability to interpret what is meant by “of the field”, which means, of course, bearing the same tincture as does the field. He took it to mean “as in the arms”, i.e. of the same tincture as the charge, which of course makes it all wrong. For instance, suppose the arms are: Argent a chevron between 2 leopard’s faces sable — Crest, a leopard’s face as in the arms. This means that the crest is a leopard’s face sable. In describing such a crest, Bolton would say: Crest, a leopard’s face of the field, i.e. argent. With this caution in mind you will not go wrong in simple examples like that; but when you find that Bolton’s version does not correspond to what you find elsewhere you will be pretty safe in attributing it to his own stupidity.

Well, that seems to say it all. One doesn’t consult Bolton for blazons (or for genealogical proof of right to old arms): its strength is the citation of documents or artifacts demonstrating the use of the arms by the families or individuals listed in the book, and this alone sets it apart from Crozier or Matthews. This book is concisely described, with others of its type, in the bibliography annotated by Joseph McMillan at the American Heraldry Society website. Bolton’s American Armory may be consulted online by subscription to

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