Recently someone asked me about the Portsmouth Town Insignia and the significance of the wavy stars. As I was researching the answer, I was reminded that Elizabeth Wilkey, a long time art teacher in Portsmouth, designed the seal we use today.  This blog will cover both Elizabeth Wilkey and what we know about the Portsmouth seal.

Elizabeth Wilkey was born in Portsmouth in 1903.  She was the daughter of Eliza and William Anthony and the wife of Henry Wilkey.  Trained as an artist, Elizabeth was a long time art teacher and arts supervisor for the Portsmouth School System.  In a speech to the Coggeshall School PTA in 1958, Elizabeth talked about her work.  She conducted thirty-five art classes each week. The older students had two classes a week while the young students had one art class a week.  She enjoyed teaching the students to use a variety of materials, even some they brought from home – like wrapping paper and milk cartons.  Ahead of her time, Mrs. Wilkey co-ordinated the art program with the other school subjects.  Her name constantly appeared in newspaper articles as she was busy designing posters, decorating for events,  illustrating brochures and exhibiting student work.

In 1962 a Daily News article describes a new 14-inch town insignia which would be displayed on all town vehicles.  The article commented that it was designed by Mrs. Henry Wilkey, Portsmouth Schools art supervisor.  It was described as consisting of a “blue shield with six unique eight pointed gold stars which are also carried on the town seal.  ‘Founded on the Compact of 1638 – Portsmouth R.I.’ encircles the shield on a gold field.”

What is the significance of the eight pointed stars? A November 5, 1960 Daily News article gives us an idea of the story behind the stars.  According to Graham Carey (who had been a partner in the John Stevens stonecutting shop and a heraldry expert) it probably relates to the seal of the City of Portsmouth in England. In the ancient Sumerian civilization, the eight-rayed sun or star above a crescent was common on seals.  Before Richard the Lionhearted set out for the Crusades in 1189 he added a star with six wavy points above a crescent to Britain’s seal.  It is thought that it represented the Star of Bethlehem over the Moslem crescent.  When Richard came back in 1194, he gave a charter to the new seaport of Portsmouth and assigned as a seal a star with eight wavy points above an upturned crescent.  Carey thought the early settlers adopted a seal in memory of Portsmouth, England, but dropped the Islamic crescent and multiplied the star by seven. Seven is a special number in the Bible and signifies completion and perfection.   The earliest Portsmouth seal had six stars around a central star.

So is that the explanation for Portsmouth’s seal?  I am not sure we will ever know for sure.