When you think of the Massachusetts State House (and if you’re like us here at Revolutionary Spaces, you think about it often), what image comes to mind? We’re willing to bet it’s not the wooden codfish that hangs in the Chamber of the House of Representatives. Despite its relative obscurity, the “Sacred Cod,” has served a valuable purpose for legislators for over two hundred years. The cod reminds representatives of the role the cod fishing industry played in the early prosperity of Massachusetts. Though the Sacred Cod has had several iterations, its message remains as true today as in the 18th century: ordinary people make history.
A Colonial Tradition
Historians speculate that a codfish effigy has been part of Massachusetts’ governmental tradition since the days of the Colonial Assembly. The first codfish was likely destroyed in 1747 when a fire ravaged much of the interior of the Town House (today, the Old State House) where the colonial government met. A 1773 bill for 15 shillings for “painting Codfish” indicates the existence of a second codfish by that year. This codfish was likely destroyed by British Troops in the Second Occupation of Boston.1
“Humble the Subject and Homely the Design…”
Today’s codfish, so named the “Sacred Cod” in an 1895 historical report, was created alongside the newly independent state’s government. The plainly painted wooden fish has watched over the House of Representatives since its installation in 1784. Prominent politician John Rowe hung the icon to serve “as a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of [the] Commonwealth.”2
By 1895, the codfish had taken on a deeper meaning. In a speech given to the House by Representative Richard Irwin, he asked,
“Is this emblem said to be too common and plain to accord with the painted splendors of [the State House]? It is no more common, simple and plain than the fathers who founded our State. It tells how the lowliest may rise and win and rule; how the fisherman may be the peer of the marshals of France and the admirals of England.”3
More than just a reminder of the contribution fishermen made to the early prosperity of Massachusetts, the Sacred Cod has come to represent the ingenuity, ambition, and ability of the working class.
The third (and so far, final) codfish effigy was hung in the Old State House in 1784. When the State government moved from the State House on Washington Street to their newly completed building on Beacon Street, so too moved the codfish on January 11, 1798.
Revolutionary Spaces is leading the 225th anniversary of the codfish’s procession on Wednesday, January 11, 2023. At 3:00pm, audiences are encouraged to watch this community-based reenactment of the procession, led by a fife-and-drum corps, from the Old State House at 206 Washington Street to the new State House at 24 Beacon Street. Following the procession, a closing reception in the “new” State House will feature light refreshments and an opportunity to view the “Sacred Cod” in its present home above the Visitors’ Gallery in the House Chamber.
Massachusetts. General Court. House of Representatives. Committee on History of the Emblem of the Codfish; Roberts, Ernest William, 1858-1927; Gallivan, James A., 1866-1928; Irwin, Richard William, b. 1857. A history of the emblem of the codfish in the hall of the House of representatives, comp. by a committee of the House. Boston: Wright and Potter printing co.,1895. https://archive.org/details/historyofemblemo00mass/page/n60/mode/2up.
A history of the emblem of the codfish Massachusetts. General Court. House of Representatives. Committee on History of the Emblem of the Codfish; Roberts, Ernest William, 1858-1927; Gallivan, James A., 1866-1928; Irwin, Richard William, b. 1857. A history of the emblem of the codfish in the hall of the House of representatives, comp. by a committee of the House (Boston: Wright and Potter printing co.,1895), 18, https://archive.org/details/historyofemblemo00mass/mode/2up.
Massachusetts, A history of the emblem of the codfish, 13.
Massachusetts, A history of the emblem of the codfish, 44.