Town Seal Review Committee discusses Eli Whitney, cotton gin with local historian

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By Stuart Foster, Contributing Writer

The Westborough Town Seal

WESTBOROUGH – Local History Librarian Anthony Vaver talked about the history of the Westborough town seal, as well as Eli Whitney’s life, during a Westborough Town Seal Review Committee meeting on Sept. 23. 

The Town Seal Review Committee was formed in response to concern over the town seal, which depicts a cotton gin. The cotton gin on the seal represents a nod to its inventor Eli Whitney, who was born in Westborough. But the symbol remains controversial due to its role in the expansion of slavery in the United States.

Vaver said that there are many contradictory perspectives on this issue because the controversy is over a symbol that can have multiple meanings.

“My question is, going forward, are we comfortable with these two symbolic readings being present on our town seal?” Vaver asked. “If we want one symbolic reading, we have to have the other. We can’t choose one and arbitrarily say that the other reading does not apply.”

Vaver described the history of Whitney, who was born in Westborough in 1765, before leaving town at the age of 23 to attend Yale College. Vaver said Whitney received a patent for the cotton gin in 1794 after moving to Georgia.

Vaver mentioned how the particular cotton that grew in the American South had tightly attached fibers which pre-existing Indian cotton gins were unable to separate. Whitney’s cotton gin increased cotton production by more than 4,000 percent, in turn increasing slavery, Vaver said.

“In my research, I have not come across any information that indicates one way or another that Eli Whitney was a racist, although some people have come to me in town and claimed that that is what is being argued,” Vaver said. “But I’ve come across references that diminish his stature as an inventor, including the ingenuity behind his cotton gin.”

Vaver referred to the existence of cotton gins in India for hundreds of years and references to enslaved people in the United States who had invented cotton gins. Vaver also said that, in this time period, many inventors did not actually create new technology. Instead, some were known as inventors of certain products because they were the ones to obtain patents. 

Vaver further discussed the history of the town seal, which was designed through a contest in 1967 to commemorate the town’s 250th anniversary. The Anniversary Committee ended up selecting four drawings by art students in the Westborough High School to create a composite seal.

“I’m here to say that I’m here to make your jobs more complicated,” Vaver said, “But I hope that it will help you think about the issue with more precision and with more nuance.”

“If there’s one thing I would like you to take away from tonight, it’s that we strive for precision when we talk about this issue,” he continued.

Vaver also mentioned the symbol that he likes the best as a symbol of Westborough – the town’s rotary. This, he said, represents the different roads that come through Westborough and that have shaped the town’s history.

“People grumble about it,” he said. “I think it’s great because I see so many acts of kindness with people going in and allowing people to come into it.”