The University's official seal has undergone more than a handful of revisions, since it was first designed.
Author: Melissa Mead
seal used on coin given to Rush Rhees at his inauguration in 1900

The Ask the Archivist column in the Summer 2023 Rochester Review answered a question from an alumnus wondering why the cover of the first issue of Review in 1923 used a seal with the date 1851 when the University was founded in 1850. You can read the article here.

The University seal has had two main versions. The first shows the date 1851 (in Roman numerals) and features a hand, palm side out, with its index finger pointing forward and up.

This seal was officially adopted by the Board on April 9, 1852, and the Executive Minutes declare that all previous seals were revoked in favor of this one--so just how many previous seals were there?

The design of the first seal was intended to be temporary--created quickly for the 1851 real estate contract that secured our first building on West Main Street. It used the United States "Liberty" half-dollar.

1850 Liberty half dollar coin


The coin above was purchased in 2012 as an example of the kind of coin used by the founders. Although this one is dated 1850, we do not know what year was on the original coin, and the few examples of the temporary seal (like the one shown below) have no date visible on them.

Paper example of early University seal


The next immediate use of a seal would be for the diplomas given to the students of the first graduating class. The Faculty Minutes note that the diploma text was to be entirely in Latin (devised by Professor John Fram Richardson). The faculty also proposed the University's Latin motto, Meliora. It would therefore make some sense if the seal was also composed in Latin, and it is:
Universitas Rocestriensis

But there exists in the Archives the brass die for another seal:

Mystery seal of the University of Rochester


This version of the seal bears the same date (1851) and the same hand. The ribbon with the word Meliora is more elaborate, the background of radiating lines in the central area is missing, and the word Sigillum (seal) has been added. Not shown on the bottom of the seal is the name of the engraver, Gavit of Albany New York.

Without an example of this seal on a document--ideally one dated between May 1851 and April 1852--we can't be sure if this was an official seal used before the official-official seal that was used on documents between 1852 and 1928 when a new seal was designed that featured the new divisions of Music and Medicine, alongside the College of Arts and Science.

1928 seal on a library bookplate
1928 seal as used on Library Bookplates


1928 seal was designed by Philipp Merz. Merz was on the staff of architects Gordon and Kaelber, who designed the River Campus. The seal can be seen throughout the River Campus on lampposts, the end facade of Dewey Hall, and the pediment of Rush Rhees Library.

The seal would undergo further changes in 1985, when it was pointed out that the double snake design representing Medicine was the emblem of Mercury (the Roman God of many things, but not medicine). Shortly after, a further alteration was made to the lettering around the seal, changing it from "Seal of the University of Rochester" to "University of Rochester Official Seal" in order to center the word Rochester at the top.