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On March 4, 1681, Charles II of England granted  territories inhabited by the Shawnee and Ohio tribes and by the Munsee and Susquehanna tribes to William Penn to settle a £16,000 debt the king owed to Penn's father. Penn founded a proprietary colony that provided a place of religious freedom for Quakers. Charles named the colony Pennsylvania ("Penn's woods" in Latin), after the elder Penn, which the younger Penn found embarrassing, as he feared people would think he had named the colony after himself. Penn landed in North America in 1682, and founded the colonial capital, Philadelphia, that same year.


In addition to English Quakers, Pennsylvania attracted several other ethnic and religious groups, many of whom were fleeing persecution and the religious wars. Other groups, including Anglicans and Jews, migrated to Pennsylvania, while Pennsylvania also had a significant African-American population by 1730. Additionally, several American tribes lived in the area under their own jurisdiction. Settlers of Swedish and Dutch colonies that had been taken over by the British continued to live in the region.


In order to give his new province access to the ocean, Penn had leased the proprietary rights of King Charles II's brother, James, Duke of York, to the "three lower counties" (now the state of Delaware) on the Delaware River. In Penn's Frame of Government of 1682, Penn established a combined assembly by providing for equal membership from each county and requiring legislation to have the assent of both the Lower Counties and the Upper Counties. The meeting place for the assembly alternated between Philadelphia and New Castle. In 1704, after disagreements between the upper and lower counties, the lower counties began meeting in a separate assembly.Pennsylvania and Delaware continued to share the same royal governor until the American Revolutionary War, when both Pennsylvania and Delaware became states


Province of Pennsylvania



Penn Governors of Pennsylvania 1681-1776

Chief proprietor


Other proprietors

William Penn


Hannah Penn served as acting proprietor after 1712

John Penn ("the American")


25%: Thomas Penn, 25%: Richard Penn, Sr.

Thomas Penn




25%: Richard Penn, Sr. (1746–71),

Governor John Penn (1771–75)

John Penn "of Stoke"


25%: Governor John Penn


Coat of arms of William Penn (*1644-†1718)

On his ex libris


Arms: Argent, a fess Sable charged with three besants of the first

Crest: A lion Argent, collared Sable, three besants of the first



* Penn, hence the besants, silver or gold coins (‘pennies’), in heraldry often used as marks of cadency.


* The motto Dum Clavum Teneam is from a quote of Quintilian: Institutio oratoria II, 17, 24: «Dum clavum rectum teneam» (If I only go steady!) or of Quintus Ennius: Fragmenta Lib 19. cap 2: «Ut clavum rectum teneam, navimquem gubernem»

Great Seal of William Penn 1702 (Æ ~7.6 cm)


The arms of the Penn-family, in the chief a crescent for difference; and the motto MERCY JVSTICE.



Obverse and reverse of the Great Seal of

William Penn Proprietor & Governor of Pennsylvania (1681-1718) (Æ ~ 5 cm) [1]


On the obverse the coat of arms of the Penn-family and the motto MERCY IVSTICE; on the reverse three stocks of maize and three vine-tendrils in saltire and the motto TRUTH PEACE LOVE AND PLENTY surrounded by a crown of laurel.


Records relating to the Colonial Seal of Pennsylvania are not known to exist, and it is doubtful if any other than that of Penn was ever in use. The Penn Charter, signed by Charles II, instructs William Penn to use his own seal, and documents bearing the personal devices of the Proprietor are still in existence. Two of these are preserved in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Here the Great Seal is pendent from a commission dated 1702, appointing Penn’s “well beloved friends Edward Shippen, John Guest, Samuel Carpenter, William Clark, Thomas Story, Griffith Owen, Phineas Pemberton, Samuel Finney, Caleb Pusey and John Blunston, to be my Council of State for the Governmentr of the Said Province of Pennsylvania.” The lesser seal appears in sealing wax upon a paper dated 1682, appointing “Justices of the peace and Court of Judicature for the town of Newe Castle.”


The Great Seal of Thomas & Richard Penn 1746-1771




The obverse and the reverse restyled in comparison with the seal of William. The legend on the obverse changed into: THOMAS & RICHARD PENN PROPR & GOVERNR OF PENSILVANIA.


Lesser seal of John, Thomas & Richard Penn


Lesser seal of Thomas & Richard Penn



The coat of arms of the Penn-family and motto. On the seal of Thomas and Richard which is identical to the preceding, the name of John, governor from 1718-’46, ciselled out.


Twenty shillings bill with arms, crest and motto  of William Penn

20 March 1771


Commonwealth of Pennsylvania



The Arms


“Although the general Convention which adopted the first Constitution establishing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on the 28th of September 1776, provided that ‘all commissions shall be in the name, and by the authority of, the freemen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sealed with the State Seal,’ no provision was made what the seal should be, and yet it is here that we ought to find the first record of the arms of the State.

“On the 20th of March following however, an act was passed for emitting bills of credit for the defence of the State; and on the 10th of April, 1777, currency was issued upon which was engraved a shield with the Arms. These arms may be described as follows:

“A plough between two barrulets; in chief a ship under full sail; and in base, three garbs.




“There is, however, neither crest, motto, nor supporters. We have no knowledge to whom we are indebted for this design; and yet it would seem to have been a composition made up from the Provincial seals of the three original counties; for, we find that on the crest which surmounts the Penn Coat of Arms on that of Philadelphia, in 1683, a ship under full sail; on the seal of Chester County, a plough; while on that of Bucks County was probably a sheaf of wheat; of the latter we have no description. The seal of Sussex County (now in Delaware) of the same period seems to have had for its crest  a sheaf of wheat, while the seal of the city of Philadephia in 1701 had upon its quartered arms a sheaf of wheat and a ship under full sail.

“In 1778 we find an engraving of the Coat of Arms in type metal, printed on a broadside, in which, in addition, is the motto, Virtue, Liberty, and Independence,’ the eagle as a crest, as also the supporters, two horses rearing, caparisoned for draught, including the stock of maize and an olive branch as additional devices. A fac-simile of this publication of the Arms of the State is given in this connection. The State Arms were first cut in printer’s metal by Caleb Lownes, who was directed by the Supreme Executive Council, on the 19th of April, 1779, to be paid therefor. Various reproductions of this plate, as to size, were prepared and in use upon imprints of laws, proclamations, commissions, and other public documents, down to the year 1805, when we have the first innovation made by the engraver. One of the early plates was in good preservation and in use occasionally as late as 1865, when by the burning of the Telegraph printing-office in Harrisburg it, with many other relics of the craft, was destroyed. That this was one of the original plates there can be no doubt, because, as early as 1782, there appeared upon the laws printed by F. and R. Bailey, a ‘battered’ plate of the Coat of Arms. This is especially noticeable in the mane of the horse on the dexter side of the shield, impressions of which are in existence down to the period of its destruction. Neither can there be any doubt that the Arms of Pennsylvania, as engraved originally by Lownes, were those adopted by the authority of the State. No record however, of this appears, and yet, it will be perceived by the sketch of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth, hereafter presented, that it had official recogntion.


Achievement of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

On the frontispiece of  The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments, Philadephia 1782


Jacob Rutter’s 1785 painting of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms

(photo by Sam Robinson at Independence Hall)


The achievement is:

Arms:  A fess Or, a plough proper, in chief in a seascape a sailing vessel on waves of the sea, sailing to the dexter, all proper, in base Vert, three garbs Or.

Crest: On a wreath of the colours, an eagle rising, wings expanded Argent

Supporters: Two grey-horses and two stocks of maize in saltire, and a wreath of a stalk of indian corn and a branch of olive  below, all proper.

Motto: VIRTUE LIBERTY INDEPENDENCE in golden lettering on a blue ribbon.


The arms of the Senate of Pennsylvania, 1791 [2]


“As referred to, the first innovation made upon the Arms proper was in 1805 or thereabouts. A rude engraving of the Arms was used, omitting the stocks of maize in the rear of the supporters and also the harnessing of the horses. The olive branch is also omitted. Various changes were made from that period down to the year 1874. In all instances the engraver left off the harness; while in some cases two white horses were in proper position; again we find one black and one white horse; at another time both horses were in a semi-recumbent position; and, more frequently, each in differen posture. It appeared impossible for any two engravers to give the same design for the Arms, from the fact that so many innovations had been made coming down for almost three-quarters of a century, that scarcely any one knew what was really the authorized Arms of the Commonwealth.

“The attention of the Legislature of 1874 having been called to this matter, a joint resolution approved the 30th day of April, 1874, directed the appointment of a commission ‘to correct the Coat of Arms of the Commonwealth,’and ‘to have the same recorded in the State Archives.’The preamble of that resolution sest forth that, -

“’Whereas, There is no record of the Coat of Arms of the Commonwealth to be found in any Department of the Government; and wheras, such armorial ensigns are frequently used, attached to or copied upon public documents of various kinds, as also upon banners upon State occasions, such as are very likely to arise during the approaching centennial celebration, and in other ways displyed or issued from the seat of Government, wherin correctness and regularity are desirable; and whereas the Arms now in use, from their style and from their approach to uniformity, are evidently founded upon and derived from the devices composing the Great Seal of the State, now of correct record in the State Department, thus conferring what would seem to be sufficient authority upon the said armorial bearings by common consent and custom, though more specific authority be not known to exist, or having existed, has been lost.’

“This commission were authorized ‘to have the present Arms of the State, as far as ascertained, the same being derived from the Great Seal, corrected of such errors or anomalies as may be therein discovered, by careful comparison with and consultation of the science of the rules of heraldry, and as soon as may be practicable, to have a copy of the said Arms, so corrected, carefully emblazoned and described so as to be of record in the State Department for future reference, the description to be in manner similar to the description of the Great Seal now of record in said Archives.’

“The Commissioners at first delegated their authority to two gentlemen well versed in heraldry, to report any suggestion or recommendations. Unfortunately, these gentlemen transcended their authority and reported at frist a Coat of Arms with the following heraldic devices.

’”Escutcheon – Party, per fess, azure, and vert, on field azure, a ship sailing proper, with canton Arms of Penn, argent, fess sable with three plates; on the fess, Or, a plough, on the field vert, three garbs, Or.

“‘Crest – On an escroll sustained by a keystone, an eagle, rousant, proper;

“‘Supporters – Two horses, sable, rearing, respecting, caparisoned for draught.

“’Motto – “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.

“Another  modification of the escutcheon was suggested as follows.

“’Party per fess., Or, azure and vert; on field azure, a ship sailing, proper; on a field vert three garbs, Or, over the fess on an escucheon of pretence, argent, fess sable with three plates.’

“The foregoing was thus recommended, to the surprise of every one who was familiar with the history of the early seal of the State, and also with the resolution of the Legislature, which directed that ‘the present Arms of the State’ as ‘derived from the Great Seal’ be ‘corrected of such errors or anomalies as may be therein discovered’ and ’carefully emblazoned and described, so as to be of record.’ In their report, the gentlemen alluded to, seem to have been impressed with the idea, not that they were to decide the question of what was the Arms of the Commonwealth, but to report such Arms as they saw proper. The result was that the plough was to be displaced by te Penn Coat of Arms, while the eagle on the crest was to stand on the keystone instead of  ‘on a wreath of its colours.’

“The attention of the Commissioners being called to the fact that such authority was not warranted by the resolution of the Assembly, a collection was made of impressions of the Arms of the State, as designed at various periods, as well as impressions of the Great Seal, hereafter to be described, and, in recognition thereof, the Commissioners reported to the next General Assembly, March 17, 1875, the following: 

“’That they had adopted the Arms as represented by Caleb Lownes, in 1778, which represented the veritable Arms of the State, and describing the same so as to be of record in the State Department for future reference:

“’Escutcheon – Party per fess, azure and vert, On a chief of the first, a ship under sail.  On a fess, a plough, proper. On a base of the second, three garbs Or.

“’Crest – An eagle, rousant, proper, on a wreath of its colours.

“’Supporters – Two horses, sable, caparisoned for draught, rearing, respectant.

“’Motto - Virtue, Liberty, and  Independence.

“The foregoing, therefore, is the proper heraldic description of the Arms of the State of Pennsylvania, save the mention of the maize and olive branch on the sides of the shield; and as such, it should never be deviated from in the least. As it is a very important matter, we have thus alluded to it in full, giving, as closley allied thereto, the folowing brief account of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth.


Æ See illustration in the head of this article. [3]


The achievement of Pennsylvania, 1876

One of the free interpretations of the law [4]


The Seal


“The great Charter of Pennsylvania, given by Charles II of England to William Penn, declares, among other things:

‘Know Yee Therefore, that Wee reposing special trust and confdence in the fidelitie, wisdome, justice, and provident circumspeccon of the said William Penn, for us, our heires, and successors, Doe grant free, full and absolute power, by vertue of these presents to him and his heires, and to his and their Deputies and Lieutenants, for the good and happy government of the Countrey, to ordeyne, make, Enact, and under his and their Seals to publish any Lawes whatsoever, for the raising of money for the public use of the said Province, or for any other End apperteyning either unto the publick state, peace, or safety of the said Countrey, or unto the private utility of perticuler persons, according unto their best discretions, ‘etc., etc.

“The first Great Seal, therfore, of the Province of Pennsylvania contained the Arms of the Penn family, and this seal continued in use till the period of the Revolution.. On the 28th of September, 1776, the first State Constitution was adopted; which, besides declaring the independence of the State of Pennsylavania, in the 16th section thereof, provided for a seal for the General Assembly to be called ‘The seal of the laws of Pennsylvania.’ This was to be affixed to every bill, but not to be used for any other purpose. In the 21st section of the same bill, as referred to in the historical sketch of the ‘Arms of the State,’ it directed ‘all commissions to be in the name and by the authority of the freemen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sealed with the Great Seal, signed by the President or Vice-President, attested by the Secretary, which seal shall be kept by the Council.

“It may, however, be remarked here that at the meeting of the Committee of Safety, August 31, 1775, it was resolved  ‘That Mr. Owen Biddle procure for the used of this Board, a seal about the size of a dollar, with the cap of liberty, and the motto: “This is my right & I will defend it,” inscribed with “Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, 1775.”

At the same time a seal for the Assembly was made. This showed a marshal’s baton per bend and a fesse inscribed with the word SEAL within the legend LIBERTY SAFETY & PEACE . [5]


Seal of the Committe of Safety, 1775

Seal of the Assembly, 1776


This was, therefore, designed and used especially on all commissions issued by that body up to, perchance, the year 1778. On the second of January of that year, however, an act was passed for establishing a new seal for the Supreme Court, etc., in these words:

‘Whereas, Since the late glorious Revolution, it is become expedient and proper to have a new seal for the Supreme Court and the Courts of Oyer and Terminer and general goal delivery of the State; be it enacted, etc. That the new seal shall be procured and made under the direction of the protonotary or clerk of the said Supreme Court, having the Arms of the State engraven thereon, with such other device as the justices of the said court shall direct, with an inscription round the edge and near the extremity thereof, in these words, to wit: Seal of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” and the figures “1776” underneath the arms; and that the same from and after the receipts thereof by the protonotary of the said court, shall be the seal of the said court, and used as such upon all occasions whatsoever.’


“In 1780 the seal which has come down to us and [which is] designated as the Great Seal was evidently re-engraved in Paris, a copy of which in exact fac-simile is preserved in connection with ths report. A letter from P. Penet to the Supreme Executive Council, writing from Nantes, under date of May 20th, 1780, says: ‘I bespoke your standards in Paris; I expect them every day. They will be sent to you by some French frigate. Capt. Samuel Smith, who has been ready to sail for some time, will deliver to you as soon as he arrives in Philadelphia, the seals representing the Arms of your State. As you desired they were engraved in Paris.


The seal of 1776 obverse

The seal of 1776, reverse

The lesser seal 1776




The seal of 1780 [6]


“From an impression of this seal in 1782, we find the following heraldic devices: On a shield, parted by a fess of gold, charged with a plough, - a ship sailing upon a silver field above, and three sheaves of wheat or garbs upon a blue field below. These same devices were, as has already been stated, engraved upon the first paper money issued by the State, in April, 1777. There seems to have been no innovation at any time made upon the Great Seal. When the New Constitution of 1789-90 was adopted, no provision was made for a State seal, although article 6, section 4, recognized its existence, and the first law that passed under that instrument, of date January 8, 1791, declared and established the seals of the Commonwealth as follows:

“’Whereas, the late convention of this Commonwealth did, on the second day of September last, establish a new form of government for Pennsylvania, and no provision is thereon made for public seals:

“’Be it enacted therefore, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in General Assembly met, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that from and after the passing of this act, the seal, heretofore known by the name of the “Great Seal.” lately in the custordy of the Supreme Executive Council, is hereby constituted the State Seal, and shall be affixed to all patents, proclamations, and other public rolls, commissions and papers of State, which require the Great Seal of the Commonwealth, and to which the same has heretofore been usually applied.

“’And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the seal lately in the custody of the Supreme Executive Council, called the “Lesser Seal,” shall be henceforth deemed and taken and shall be applied as the Less Seal of the Commonwealth, and, as such, set to land-office-warrants, marriage licenses, licenses to keep public houses, and such other documents, as have heretofore been issued under the Lesser Seal.

“’and be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the said seals, respectively, shall be, and the same are hereby declared to be, the Great and Less Seals of the Commonwealth, and shall be affixed accordingly, under the direction of the Governor.

“The next we hear of the ‘Great Seal’ was in March 1809, when an act was passed on the second day of that month to perpetuate the same, as it is so expressly entitled. This was owing to the fact that the seal so long used had become worn out. The act referred to provides:

“‘Whereas, The Great Seal of this Commonwealth is so nearly worn out, that it is necessary to renew the same, and whereas, it appears that there is no description thereof on record, and it being proper that the said seal should be particularly described and established, so that the same may hereafter be more fully known and recognized; therefore,

“‘Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that the Secretary of the Commonwealth be, and he hereby is authorized and directed to procure the renewal of the Great Seal of this Commonwealth, and record and deposit a description thereof, in writing, in this office that the same may be made perpetual.’

“Under the foregoing act a record was made of the Great Seal, which we find in the Executive Minutes under the date of Saturday, July 1st, 1809, as follows

“‘In obedience to the directions of an Act of General Assembly passed the second day of March, one thousand eight hundred and nine, the following description of the Great Seal is recorded, that is to say: -

“‘The shield shall be parted Per Fess, Or, charged with a plough, Proper, in chief; on a sea wavy, Proper, a ship under full sail, surmounted with a sky, Azure; and in Base, on a field Vert, three Garbs, Or. On the sinister a stock of maize, and Dexter an olive branch. And on the wreath of its colours a bald eagle - Proper, perched  Wings extended, for the Crest. Motto - Virtue, Liberty, and Independence. Round the margin of the seal, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The reverse, Liberty, trampling on a Lyon Gules, the emblem of Tyranny. Motto - Both can’t survive.’”


The seal of 1809


“This, therefore, is the Great Seal of the State. Unfortunately, there seems to be some difference between the original engraving in Paris and that now in use in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth. We, therefore, present for the purpose of permanent record a copy of the first seal; although, as will be perceived, the heraldic description as extracted from the Executive Minutes shows some errors, as follows: First, in describing the base as vert, when the horizontal lines on the seal show that it was azure; second, in describing as on the sinister side the stock of maize and on the dexter side and olive branch, when neither were to be found on the seal; third, in describing the eagle, when there was no eagle or wreath upon the seal; fourth in describing the inscription around the edge of the seal as ‘Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’ instead of ‘Seal of the State of Pennsylvania,’ as was on the original seal. [7]

During the adminstration of Governor William Bigler (1852-’55) a modified seal was used with a broader shield. In 1858 the inscription was corrected


The seal of 1854

The seal of 1858


“In 1868, however, the seal was again modified by the introduction of the scroll-work design in the lower segment of the circumferential band. [8]


The seal of 1868

Reverse of the seal of 1868


“In 1893, although the previous designs continued occasionally to be used during that and the following year, - the seal now in use – was adopted, differing from the immediately preceding form in the omission of the wreath and festoon about the upper part of the shield, and, as in the seal of 1876, facing the plough and ship from right to left. [9]


The seal of 1893 obverse

The seal of 1893 reverse


The Governor






Pennsylvania Army National Guard





Description: That for regiments and separate battalions of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard: From a wreath of colors, a lion rampant guardant Proper, holding in dexter paw a naked scimitar Argent hilted Or and in sinister an escutcheon Argent on a fess Sable three plates.

Symbolism: This device was devised by Benjamin Franklin. In 1747 during the war of the Spanish Succession, the Spaniards threatened Philadelphia, coming up the Delaware as far as New Castle. Dr. Franklin aroused the people and designed a crest and flag which was carried through Philadelphia in 1748 by Colonel Taylor's battalion. The shield is the shield of William Penn, white with black fess bearing three white discs.

Background: The crest was approved for color bearing organizations of the State of Pennsylvania on 15 April 1922.


Shoulder Sleeve Insignia



Description: On a red keystone 6.67 cm in height and 6.67 cm in width, with a 32 mm) yellow border, the coat of arms of the State of Pennsylvania in yellow.

Background: The shoulder sleeve insignia was originally approved for Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, Pennsylvania National Guard on 6 May 1948. It was redesignated for Headquarters, State Area Command, Pennsylvania Army National Guard on 30 December 1983.


Distinctive Unit Insignia.




Description: A gold color metal and enamel device 2.54 cm in height overall, consisting of a white and red torse and standing thereon a gold lion facing front and holding a white shield on which is a black fess charged with three white roundels and wielding in his upraised paw a white bladed scimitar.

Symbolism: This device was devised by Benjamin Franklin. In 1747 during the war of the Spanish Succession, the Spaniards threatened Philadelphia, coming up the Delaware as far as New Castle. Dr. Franklin aroused the people and designed a crest and flag which was carried through Philadelphia in 1748 by Colonel Taylor's battalion. The shield is the shield of William Penn, white with black fess bearing three white discs. As the original settlement was of English origin, the twists of the wreath are white and red.

Background: The distinctive unit insignia was approved on 29 October 1986.



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 © Hubert de Vries 2017-11-07




[1] These illustrations and some others from: Egle, William H. The Arms of Pennsylvania and the Great Seal of the Commonwealth. 1894.  https://archive.org/stream/sealarmsofpennsy00pilc#page/n0/mode/1up

[2] Doolittle, A. ed.: A Display of the United States. New Haven, 1791

[3] Mitchell, Henry:  The State Arms of the Union, BostonL. Prang & Co.(1876) 

[4] Connell, A.J.: Arms of the States and Territories of the American Union. Washington D.C. 1876

[5] Egle, William H.: The Arms of Pennsylvania and the Great Seal of the Commonwealth. Philadelphia 1894. P. 148 & 168

[6]Among the American seals preserved in the National Archives of Canada (MG 23, D 1, Series 1, Vol. 10, p. 145A. Photo C105914), we find this impression of the seal of Pennsylvania affixed to a legal document issued in Philadelphia on 15 October 1785. http://pages.infinit.net/cerame/heraldicamerica/etudes/pennsylvania.htm

[7] Zieber, Eugene: Heraldry in America. Published by the Department of Heraldry of the Bailey, Banks and Biddle Company. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1895pp. 172-180.

[8] Shankle, Georg Earlie: State Names, Flags, Seals, Songs, Birds, Flowers and other Symbols. The H.W. Wilson Comp.. New York, 1951.

[9] The Seal and Arms of Pennsylvania, James Evelyn Pilcher, Carlisle, Pennsylvania (William Stranley Ray, State Printer, Harrisburg Pennsylvania, 1902) p. 10 For a more recent statment of these facts, see The Pennsylvania Manual 1931, compiled under the Department of Property and Supplies, published by the Commonwealth of Pannsylvania (Bureau of Publications, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1931) p. 273

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