Two women were depicted on the New York State coat of arms when it was first officially adopted in 1778. However, many times since then for unknown reasons, government officials, artists and engravers changed the number of women, what they represented, the way they looked, and the objects they held in their hands.
In 1875, a major controversy broke out when the organizers for the nation’s centennial celebration asked New York for a painting of its official coat of arms so that they could put it in a display of the arms of the 13 original states in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. According to a state law in 1875, there was supposed to be a written description of the official coat of arms on file in the secretary of state’s office—but such a description could not be found, anywhere!
A painting of the coat of arms that was first hung in St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City in 1785 was eventually copied and sent to Philadelphia for the centennial celebration; however, the controversy over what the official New York State coat of arms was supposed to look like continued. In 1882, after several years of research and dispute, the legislature adopted the recommendations of a study commission consisting of Governor Alonzo B. Cornell, Secretary of State Joseph B. Carr and State Comptroller James W. Wadsworth, and passed a law which officially described New York’s coat of arms. The statute also regulated the use of the coat of arms on all the various state government seals and on the New York State flag. The law went into effect on January 1, 1883 and since that time, the two figures on the coat of arms have not legally changed.
The woman on the left represents Liberty. Clothed in blue, she wears red sandals and decorates her hair with pearls. A gold Phrygian cap rests on top of the staff Liberty holds in her right hand. The cap was given to Roman slaves when they were formally emancipated and granted their freedom. An overturned royal crown at Liberty’s left foot represents the distinct abandonment of monarchical government.
The woman on the right is emblematic of Justice. According to an 1881 research paper by the State Librarian Henry A. Homes, she represents the Greek virgin goddess of justice, Astraea, not to be confused with her mother, Themis, who also personifies justice. Clothed in gold, Justice wears sandals and also has pearls decorating her hair. Justice is blindfolded and carries the sword of justice in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left hand.
The women are standing on a silver scroll which has the state motto, “Excelsior” (Ever Upward) written on it in black type.