State Flags: the Good

The New York State Flag

Happy Flag Day! I’ve been planning to start a series of posts on the flags of American states and today seems an appropriate time to get started. In recognition of the occasion, we’ve started flying the New York State flag, seeing as we live in New York State. Our state flag, like many others, is the state coat of arms on a field of blue. The flag we’re flying is actually a bit out of date. New York recently appended “E Pluribus Unum” to our state motto, which caused a change in the coat of arms and consequently the flag. We’ll come back to the New York Flag in a later post.

An overview of state flags suggests a self-evident organizational structure which will define the posts in the series. We’ll break things down thusly.

  1. Flags that need no changes
  2. Flags that only need very slight changes
  3. Flags that have well established and aesthetic alternatives and
  4. Flags that require significant changes.

I’m hardly the first person to undertake this kind of analysis, I don’t remember the first time I saw such a thing on the internet. I do, on the other hand, remember my reaction, “Oooo. That must have been fun!” That was one of the many things that helped inspire me to start this blog. Lots of people must have thought this would be fun since, judging from the “U.S. State Flags – Current, Historical and Proposed” Facebook group, every state has dozens of proposed alternatives. In part 3, we’ll focus our attention on states with good historical alternatives or proposals that have some ongoing public support. When we get to part 4, there might be as many as one post per state. I’ll highlight some of the proposals that I like and I may try my hand at making my own.

But let’s dispense with part one, the best flags which are just great as they are. I’ll start off by reminding us about the NAVA’s five principles for good flag design as delineated in Good Flag, Bad Flag.

Principle 1. KEEP IT SIMPLE: The Flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
Principle 2. USE MEANINGFUL SYMBOLISM: The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
Principle 3. USE 2 TO 3 BASIC COLORS: Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
Principle 4. NO LETTERING OR SEALS: Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.
Principle 5. BE DISTINCTIVE OR BE RELATED: Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

North American Vexillological Association

I put nine flags in the category, which I’ll list from my least favorite to my favorite.

9. Maryland

The flag of Maryland comes up short with respect to principles one and three, but Good Flag, Bad Flag uses Maryland as an exemplar of when it’s okay to bend the rules. It’s distinctiveness is it’s strength. The Symbolism is strong too; the flag is based in the coat of arms of Cecil Calvert the 2nd Baron Baltimore, founder of the Maryland colony. When NAVA did a survey of the state, provincial and territorial flags of North America, the Maryland flag placed fourth and the flag is a common motif on team uniforms, airplanes and license plates.

8. Texas

Demonstrating all five of the NAVA principles, the flag of Texas actually predates Texas’ entry into the Union as it was the final flag of the Republic of Texas. The colors are defined by the Texas Flag Code to be identical to the colors of the US Flag, with red, white and blue representing bravery, purity and loyalty respectively. The single red and white stripes date back to the Republic of Fredonia which attempted to seceded from Mexico in 1926. The single star was the common element of every flag of the Republic of Texas, symbolizing the Texans’ unity in declaring independence from Mexico. That star inspired the nickname “the Lone Star State.”

7. South Carolina

The flag of South Carolina and the palmetto palm as a symbol for the state both date back to the American Revolution. The flag is based on the Moultrie or Liberty Flag which consisted of the upward facing crescent containing the word “Liberty” on an indigo background. The sable palmetto became a symbol of the state when the trees were used to build a fort on Sullivan’s island that subsequently withstood a British attack. The palmetto was incorporated into the first state seal in 1777 but it was not added to the flag until 1861 as South Carolina seceded from the Union. A variation of this state flag was the first flag raised by the Confederate Army after it occupied Fort Sumner. The South Carolina flag placed 10th in the NAVA survey and it is cited in Good Flag, Bad Flag to illustrate Principle 4. “The palmetto tree” it notes “represents the ‘Palmetto State’ far better than the state’s seal could.”

Everything takes longer than it does and so, in order to post this while it’s still Flag Day, we’re going to leave it there for today. Can you stand the suspense? Tune in for my favorite state flags numbers 6 to 1 coming soon!

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