As the Christmas shopping season is upon us, perhaps it is time to remind people that there is no such thing as a "family" coat of arms. You will see ads on the web and in magazines as well as pushcart merchants in the malls selling this stuff. Yes, they will be happy to sell you an "authentic" reproduction of the Smith or other surname coat of arms, suitable for framing. They will also sell golf shirts embroidered with the same coat of arms or coffee cups with the same.
(Insert the sound of a loud, obnoxious buzzer here.)
Sorry folks, that stuff is totally bogus. Don't waste your money! The people selling that stuff are flim-flam artists. Ask them for documentation that the coat of arms they sell is, in fact, authorized for everyone with the same last name as your own. They won't be able to do so because that is not how coats of arms are issued.
Coats of arms are part of a system of heraldry or the display of armorial designs that goes back to the Middle Ages. The United States has no system of coats of arms. Awarding of coats of arms is done only in the British Isles, the former British Commonwealth nations, Europe, and a few countries in Asia.
In the British Isles, the former British Commonwealth nations and most western European countries, coats of arms are only awarded to individuals. To be sure, another person (usually the oldest son) may be able to obtain permission to display the same coat of arms if he applies for it after the death of the original holder. Therefore, if you are the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son of the person originally awarded the coat of arms, you might be allowed to display the same coat of arms, after you have applied for the right to display it.
A written application is required, and only one person is approved. Anyone else wanting to display the same coat of arms must wait for the death of the present holder and then apply himself. The actual rules for the use and display of coats of arms are a bit more complex than what I want to describe here, but suffice it to say that 99.9% of the purveyors of coat of arms reproductions ignore all those rules.
NOTE: If you have a certificate from the herald authority of the country involved, then you do have the authority to display the coat of arms. However, if you have such permission, I suspect you probably already know a great deal about this subject. For those without written authorization, I will caution you that displaying an unauthorized coat of arms as your own is a form of impersonation.
NOTE #2: There are some variations of these rules in a few European countries. The Netherlands has two parallel systems for coat of arms. Families of the nobility follow the above rules while medieval families of the merchant class developed a different system that can be passed from father to son without paperwork. Some eastern European families use a coat of arms system with somewhat different rules. However, the only place I know of that allows for coats of arms to be used by everyone of a certain surname is Japan. If you are a direct all-male descendant of a Samurai warrior, you can ignore this article.
To see how widespread the "family coat of arms" business has become, go to any Web search engine and search for "your family coat of arms." For instance, you can search for "family coat of arms" on Google. You will find many Web sites advertising this schlock; many of them even claim that the products are "authentic." Well, the word "authentic" can be interpreted in multiple ways. Yes, the coat of arms in question probably is or was authentic for someone; but, I doubt if it is authentic for your use.
It is illegal to conduct schemes or devices to obtain money through the U.S. mails by means of false representation. Indeed, anything sold to you as "your family's coat of arms" has been misrepresented. The legal citation is 39 U.S.C.93005. If you believe you have been the victim of a coat of arms scam, you can do something about it! If you purchased products that you feel did not live up to advertised claims, demand a refund! If your money is not returned within 30 days or so from a U.S. company, submit a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection at: https://rn.ftc.gov/dod/wsolcq$.startup?Z_ORG_CODE=PU01.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service will investigate any companies that use the U.S. mails to misrepresent mass-produced surname books or coats of arms. You can contact them at:
U.S. Postal Inspection Service
Consumer Protection Division
475 L'Enfant Plaza, SW
Washington, DC 20260-1100
A few letters of inquiry from the federal government will send a strong message to the people who produce products or services of questionable value.
Finally, credit card companies are very active at consumer protection. If you used a credit card to pay for a product that is of questionable value and the company involved has refused to return the money, call the toll-free number shown on the back of your credit card and describe the problem to Customer Service. The credit card companies have much more leverage to obtain refunds than you do, and they move much more quickly than the government does.
Because of the extra protection offered by credit card companies, always make your online and offline purchases by credit card. Do not use cash, checks, money orders, or debit cards for online purchases; you will not enjoy the same level of protection as that provided by credit cards. Despite the "old wives' tales" that float around, credit cards are always the safest method of sending payments, both online and offline. (Debit cards are not true credit cards and may or may not have fraud protection. Check with your issuing bank for details.)
For more information about the proper use of coats of arms and other armorial designs, check out the following web sites:
The College of Arms is the official repository of the coats of arms and pedigrees of English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Commonwealth families and their descendants: http://www.college-of-arms.gov.uk
The Heraldry Society exists to increase and extend interest in and knowledge of heraldry, armory, chivalry, genealogy and allied subjects: http://www.theheraldrysociety.com
The Heraldry Society of Scotland promotes the study of heraldry and encourages its correct use in Scotland and overseas: http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/
The Royal Heraldry Society of Canada or RHSC and its branches encourages, educates, and promotes the art and science of heraldry: http://www.heraldry.ca
I do have one word of advice: if your relative buys you a Christmas present that includes the "family's coat of arms," I suggest that you smile graciously and accept the gift. Don't break out laughing until you return to the privacy of your own home. After all, there is no sense in making fun of someone else's innocence.