A Flag for the Fourth

Happy Independence Day!

We’ll begin in our usual way. To mark the occasion this year, we’re flying the “Bunker Hill Flag” which is a bit different from our usual July 4th flag; its not one of the variations of the stars and stripes. It’s famous for flying at the Battle of Bunker Hill the first major conflict of the Revolutionary War, except that it isn’t. I’ll explain. It’s a story reminiscent of the history of the Bennington Flag.

The Bunker Hill Flag, so named because many believe it was flown by the colonists at its eponymous battle, has a blue field with the red St. George Cross on a white background in the canton. In the upper left hand corner of the canton is a pine tree which to the colonists symbolized liberty.

There are no contemporary accounts of this flag being flown at the battle and most likely the colonists flew what is known as the colonial flag; a red ensign with a pine tree shown in the canton. Both of these flags are modeled on British flags with only the addition of a pine tree because at the time, many colonists still believed that reconciliation with Great Britain was possible.

The evidence that the blue Bunker Hill flag was flown at Bunker Hill consists entirely of a painting done by Jonathan Trumbull, an eye witness to the battle, and an interview of the daughter of a veteran of the battle.

But the daughter’s account only said that her father claimed to have raised a blue flag at the battle while an earlier version of Trumbull’s painting showed the blue flag colored red; that painting is considered to be evidence that the Continental Flag was used.

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There’s one piece of direct evidence that the Bunker Hill Flag was actually flown at the battle, a book published early in the 19th century. The book contained a picture of the flag but the description described it as red rather than blue. This is generally considered to be a printing error.

Despite it’s questionable origins, the Bunker Hill Flag became a symbol of both the Revolution and of New England. It remains in use as a flag of New England today.

This seems fitting. Despite Bunker Hill being the original objective of both the Americans and the British, most of the fighting occurred a third of a mile south on Breed’s Hill. Some even cal it “The Battle of Breed’s Hill.”

References

Juneteenth and Pride Month!

Two Flags for June

The Juneteenth Flag

Happy Juneteenth! I’ve been wanting to fly a Juneteenth flag for a couple of years now but I found an affordable one just this year.

You might be wondering what “Juneteenth” is. Also known as “America’s second independence day,” it’s been a state holiday in 49 states and commemorates the end of slavery in the US after the Civil War.

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and it took effect on 1 January 1863. It proclaims “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This changed the character of the war, transforming it from a conflict that could be perceived as an internecine squabble to a quest to expand basic human rights, Of course, it wasn’t that simple. But it meant that the tide of freedom advanced as the Union gained territory.

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The Army of the Trans-Mississippi was the last major Confederate force to surrender. On 19 June 1895, when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to take command of the Army forces there, one of his first actions was to issue General Order 3, which informed the citizens of Texas that slavery there was ended. It read in part:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

Celebrations erupted as Granger’s men traveled forth announcing the order. A few months later, slavery finally ended throughout the US on 6 December 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. One year after General Order 3, the first commemoration took place in Galveston as “Jubilee Day.” That became an annual tradition.

The name “Juneteenth” is a contraction of “June nineteenth.” Actually, it’s a “portmanteau” if you want to be all fancy about it. In a nice bit of synergy, Juneteenth became a national holiday two days ago, as President Biden signed the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act” into law. That was long overdue; we should celebrate the moments when we actually got closer to the ideals the US is supposed to represent.

The Juneteenth flag is stunning! it was originally designed by Ben Haith in 1997 and refined by graphic designer Lisa Jeanne Graf. The symbolism of the flag is profound.

The colors are an intentional callback to the American flag emphasizing that the people freed that day and their descendants were, are, and remain Americans.

The central five-pointed star not only represents the freedom of African-Americans in all 50 states but also symbolizes Texas, the Lone Star State, where the celebration originated.

The burst that surrounds the star is a nova, a new star which represents a new freedom, a new people and a new beginning for African Americans.

Finally, the arc depicts the horizon; a new horizon representing the promise and opportunities that lie ahead.

The Ally Flag

Also, Happy Pride Month! Until yesterday we’d been flying the Ally flag in honor of Pride Month. I didn’t have much new to say about it since I wrote about it last time we flew the flag.

My previous Ally Flag Post

At the time I’d written about an alternative version that I liked a bit better and wished had been available. It’s still not available, but I’ve recreated it so you can see it here. In retrospect, I had some mixed feelings about this version as I realized that the background was initially a “Straight Pride Flag.” Frequently, things like that are a reactionary backlash to some new group looking for equality.

But the standard ally flag has the same problem; the black-and-white striped flag has a similar origin and it’s time to reclaim those images in any event. Having either as the background of an ally flag does nothing but decrease its salience as a reactionary symbol. And aesthetically I still like the shades-of-gray better. I’m not completely happy with this recreation though. The contrast between the pure black on top and pure white on the bottom is too stark. I’ll probably go back and try a version with shades of gray throughout.

References:

Happy Earth Day 2021!

Good morning everyone, and Happy Earth Day! Today, for Earth Day, we’ve finally gotten a copy of “the Flag of Earth” that was designed by James W. Cadel in 1970. I’ve been wanting one of these for a while. It’s a beautiful flag with clear symbolism, showing a simple representation of the Earth, Moon and the Sun. As it is stated on the Flag of Earth Website, “The Earth and its most important celestial neighbors – the Sun and Moon – are overlaid on a backdrop of the darkness of space.”

The origins of Cadel’s flag trace back to the Apollo 11 moon landing and a movement to plant, not the American Flag on the Moon, but one that represented all of humanity. The United Nations flag was proposed as an alternative, but that, it was pointed out, does not represent all of Earth, but merely a particular organization. This was “one giant leap for Mankind” but that sentiment was marred by an ostentatious display of nationalism. Surely if politics can end at the water’s edge, then nationalism can end at the edge of the atmosphere.

The following year Cadel designed this flag, hoping it would be used on future space missions in the spirit of the message that the Apollo 11 astronauts left on the Moon, “We came in peace for all Mankind.”

NASA never warmed to that idea, but the Flag of Earth became popular in astronomical circles and was flown at observatories and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) installations worldwide. It was lowered to half-staff to mark the passing of Carl Sagan. The North American AstroPhysical Observatory, which runs the ARGUS Array, is now entrusted with the Flag of Earth’s legacy and its website. You can find a lot more information there and you can also purchase merchandise, the proceedes of which support the Observatory’s projects including the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

One unrelated note: we had been flying the 1901 Maine flag prior to today although I did not have time to post about it at the time. It worked nicely for the holiday season and it did, in fact, fly for a part of 2020, Maine’s bicentennial year. While we were flying the 1901 flag, there was a welcome proposal to restore it as the official state flag that sadly failed. It would have been a big improvement. More on that when we continue our series on state flags.

References:

Two Flags for Election Day

Happy Election Day 2020! I hope every one who hasn’t is planning to vote. More on that later. Here are two flag related things about this year’s elections.

48 Star American Flag 3x5 Feet 1912-1959 Old Glory US USA for sale online |  eBay

We’ve decided to fly a 48-Star American Flag to mark the day of one of our most important patriotic duties. Why the 48-star flag? Well, the 48-star flag had the second-longest tenure as the nation’s official flag, from 1912 to 1959, and not once in that time did we suffer an electoral inversion where the Electoral College failed to elect the winner of the popular vote.

The 48-star flag was also the flag for the 1936 Election which is notable for two reasons. It’s the election where Literary Digest predicted a landslide victory for Republican Alf Landon. Don’t recall President Landon? There’s a good reason for that. The Literary Digest poll is literally a textbook example of how not to predict the winner of an election. Predicting that Landon would win 57% to 43%, they were off by a whopping 19 points! That’s the largest error ever in an important opinion poll. Don’t worry though, we’re a lot better at it now.

File:ElectoralCollege1936.svg

The other reason that the 1936 election is noteworthy is that it holds the record for the largest electoral-vote landslide in American History. President Roosevelt won 527 electoral-votes to Landon’s 8. That, to borrow a joke from Barbara Holland, was the start of that old saying, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

There’s one other flag with a connection to Election Day this year because Joanne and I actually cast our ballots on the 24th of October, the first day of early voting. It took us just over an hour standing in line and chatting with some friendly people. Toward the front of the line, in front of the Board of elections, I finally got a good look at a Chemung County flag. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in the wild and it’s pretty good. It’s got an eagle and a wreath and some stars and it only uses three colors. It ticks off some of the NAVA standards. It could do without all the text and I have no clue about the symbolism but as a municipal flag, it’s above average.

Have a great day and don’t forget to vote!

Happy Star Trek Day!

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On 8 September 1966, after two years in development, Star Trek finally debuted on the teevee. Fans have celebrated this date as “Star Trek Day” unofficially for a while now, but the producers of the show have now gotten on board and today, 2020.09.08 is the first Official Star Trek Day with events like marathons, cast reunions and more. “Encounter at Farpoint” is airing on StarTrek.com as I write this.

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In our little corner of the Alpha Quadrant, we’re marking the occasion by flying the flag of the United Federation of Planets. We’ve flown the UFP flag before and you can read my original post about the flag here.

The UFP Flag and Beginning Vexillology

That post contains my thoughts on the flag. For today I thought we’d look at two precursors of the UFP flag and a proposed redesign. The UFP apparently had no flag in the Original Series. The Star Fleet Technical Manual (Joseph, 1975) had a Banner, which can be seen in “And The Children Shall Lead” and it had a seal shown here, possibly designed for the book cover. This seal would make a passable flag itself.

The first place we see an image similar to the “current” UFP flag is on a view screen in Star Trek the Motion Picture when Kirk addresses the crew. This same image is seen as a flag, draped across the Torpedo Tube at Spock’s funeral in The Wrath of Khan.

This clearly looks like a hybrid of the Tech Manual’s seal and the current flag design. There are two advantages over the current design for me. There’s no text and the wreath looks less like something of terrestrial origin.

The last image we’ll look at today is a proposed redesign of the UFP flag that I found on Reddit, created by Doliam13.

This fixes a lot of the issues with the current UFP flag. The text is gone and the star field is more symbolic, looking less like a literal map of our local piece of the Milky Way. This also fixes some of the symbolism in the current design. There are four stars to represent the four founding civilizations of the Federation where the current flag highlights only three. The notion that the three stars represent three of the founding worlds as seen by an observer standing on the fourth is an inane retcon contrivance. Better to just fix the flag and not try to explain it.

A few last things to mark the day. Science Officer Leonard (named for McCoy, Leonard H. Son of David) is properly attired and ready to face the day while I have two different pairs of let’s call them “Spocky socks” that I’ll wear throughout the occasion. The blue, black, and gold pair were made by my lovely wife, Joanne while the pair with the Vulcan salute was a gift from my sisters-in-law.

Also: Tea. Peppermint. Hot.

Votes for Wonder Women

3x5 19th Amendment Victory Flag Women's Suffrage Right to ...

It’s now the 100th Anniversary of the day that Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the United States officially recognized women’s right to vote. We’re once again flying a “19th Amendment Victory Flag” to mark the occasion. I wrote about this flag last year. It’s based on the flag of the National Women’s Party, a gold, white and purple tri-color with 36 stars added for the thirty-six states that approved the amendment. The story about how the amendment passed is great. It’s also amazing that something that seems so unequivocally the right-thing-to-do by modern sensibilities came down to a single vote. You can find that story in last year’s article, 19th Amendment Victory Flag.

A turning point in that story involved a political cartoon where Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was sweeping the letters “RAT” toward the letters “IFICATION,” symbolizing the campaign to support the amendment. When I was thinking about what to write this year, I spent some time looking for that political cartoon. If you’ve read this blog, you know I like to write about comics and I like to write about history and flags. History and flags are part of the “The Universe and Everything” part. Anyway, at some point I put “Carrie Chapman Catt” and “Cartoon” into duckduckgo.com and I stumbled upon something in the nice triple intersection of the Venn diagram that’s implied above. Ha! Math! There’s another thing!

I’ve always considered DC Comics to be the more conservative of the two major comic book companies. They were static for a long time while Marvel was innovating and they were so dedicated their own house style that they had other artists redraw Jack Kirby’s pictures of Superman when he was working on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. I get that those are small-c conservative, but you have to admit that’s pretty conservative. It’s like putting pants on Michelangelo’s David.

But there were pockets of progressive-ism as pointed out by Tim Hanley on his blog, The 1940s Justice Society Of America Were A Surprisingly Progressive Bunch. That’s well worth a read as is his post on Wonder Woman’s place in the JSA.

So, what was in that intersection mentioned above? “Wonder Women of History” a back-up feature that ran in Sensation Comics and Wonder Woman for twelve years starting with Wonder Woman #1 in 1942. Each issue featured a short biography of 1 to 5 pages, full of cheesiness and hyperbole. These included the stories of figures like Abigail Adams, Joan of Arc, and Marie Curie. Among the women featured were two important leaders of the suffrage movement taking us from the Seneca Falls Convention to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

And in honor of the Centennial that Amendment, here is the biography of Susan B. Anthony from Wonder Woman #5 (June-July 1943).

We also present the reason for the search result; Comic Vine tells me that Carrie Chapman Catt is a comic book character in Wonder Woman #26 (November-December 1947). That has the incongruous title of “Speed Maniacs from Mercury.” Luckily, that’s not the story in which Mrs. Catt appears.

Eventually, Wonder Woman of History was replaced with makeup tips and advice on landing a husband because DC is so progressive. But the Wonder Women of History were fun while it lasted. If you like these, there are a lot more here. It was nice when comics tried to educate as well as entertain.

References:

State Flags: The Good, Continued

Okay, so maybe slightly later than “later this week.” None the less, here is the conclusion to the first installment of our series on state flags. If you haven’t read the first part of this, it’s here.

Without further ado, my choices for the best of the state flags, #6 to #1.

6. Colorado

It’s interesting how your quickly opinions can change on some of this subjective stuff. Although Colorado has an objectively nice flag, this morning it’s looking like a piece of sporting apparel and I’m now pondering if it belongs in the category of flags that need a minor tweak. Not going to do it; that way lies madness. Well, maybe in the comments if there’s interest.

This flag technically breaks two of NAVA’s five criteria, there are four colors and the large “C” is text. But this is another flag that Good Flag, Bad Flag uses to demonstrate that one can depart from their principles “with caution and purpose,” calling the “C” a “stunning graphic element.”

The Colorado National Monument

Each of the four colors carries symbolic meaning. The red, perhaps most significantly, represents the land. “Colorado,” the name of first the river and then the state literally means “colored red.” The gold evokes the abundant sunlight, the blue the sky, and the white, the snow-capped mountains.

5. Tennessee

The “Tri-Star Flag” is a nice flag with some nice symbolism, but boy is that a lot of red! That’s not really to my taste. Still, the centerpiece makes a nice symbol that is used by businesses and sports teams. The three stars represent the three “Grand Divisions” of Tennessee defined in the state constitution, East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee. These divisions are “bound together in indissoluble unity” within the blue circle by the “unending white band.” The blue band is merely a design element to relieve, as LeRoy Reeves, the designer puts it, “the sameness of the crimson field and prevents the flag from showing too much crimson when hanging limp. The blue band is symbolically a bit of a missed opportunity. In its current location, it could represent the Blue Ridge Mountains on the eastern border of the state. On the left, it could symbolize the Mississippi River, the western border. Do both and the flag becomes a metaphorical map of Tennessee. The star placements are established by state law and are a bit fiddly; a commemorative stamp issued in 1976 showed the stamp upside down.

4. The District of Columbia

The nation’s capital was founded in 1791. It had to wait until 1938 before a flag was chosen, but at least it’s an objectively good flag. The design is striking and is based on the Washington family’s Coat of Arms so the symbolism more-or-less takes care of itself. The flag was designed by a three-member commission appointed by Congress and was initially a symbol of the District’s lack of representation. Ironically, Washingtonians have since embraced the flag. It appears on merchandise throughout the district and is used prominently by the DC Statehood Movement.

When a seal or a coat of arms is used in the design of a flag, the usual approach is to merely place the seal on a solid colored background as we see at left, and then perhaps add the name, a date of a motto to the flag. None of those are improvements. The DC flag is an object lesson in how to use a seal or a coat of arms as an inspiration for flag design. The trick, in this case, is to focus on one or two clear and distinctive design elements, rather than trying to include the entire coat of arms. Another excellent example can be found in this video.

3. Hawaii

Having the British flag in the canton of one of the thirteen original colonies would be kind of obnoxious, but here makes for a beautiful and distinctive flag. Before the War of 1812, King Kamehameha I flew the Union Flag over his home. This flag had been a gift from Britain’s King George III. During the war, this was replaced by the American flag until some British officers objected. Kamehameha responded by commissioning a new flag that was a hybrid of the two. Britain is represented in the canton while the stripes and their colors symbolize the United States. The eight stripes each stand for one of Hawaii’s major islands, echoing the symbolism of the American flag. Hawaii’s flag is one of only two state flags to have been the flag of an independent country and it is the only flag to fly over a kingdom, a republic, an American territory, and a state.

2. Ohio

NAVA’s fifth principle of flag design is to “Be original or be related.” Ohio’s flag is proof that the “or” is not exclusive. It’s certainly “related.” Of all the state flags, Ohio’s flag has the strongest resemblance to the Stars and Stripes. It is also original. It’s the only non-rectangular state flag and the blue triangle on the hoist as well as the white-and-red “O” are distinctive.

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Virtually every element of the flag has meaning. The triangular swallowtail shape is thought to hearken back to flags carried by Ohio units in the Civil and Spanish American wars. The five stripes symbolize the roads and waterways of the state while the blue field stands for Ohio’s hills and valleys. The 13 stars encircling the “O” represent the thirteen original states while collectively the 17 stars evoke Ohio’s position as the 17th state to join the Union. The “O” doesn’t merely stand for the state’s name, it also suggests an eye and thus Ohio’s nickname as the “Buckeye State.”

It’s interesting that, although we now recognize Ohio’s is a well-designed flag, it wasn’t initially so well received. The “seal-on-a-bed-sheet” model was ubiquitous among state flags. It was seldom used and compared to the flags of Cuba and the Philippines. It was particularly disparaged for the red center of the O’s similarity to the Japanese flag’s sun.

1. Alaska

Readers of this blog might recall that Alaska is my favorite state flag. It’s a simple, attractive flag. If you know anything about celestial navigation, at least some of the symbolism is easy to deduce. The location of the big dipper makes it clear that the larger star is the north star; symbolizing that Alaska is the northern-most state.

But there’s a lot more going on here, worthy of a post of its own. The flag was initially chosen as the territorial flag in 1927 after the Governor held a design contest open to school children in grades 7 through 12. The winner of the contest was 13-year-old Benny Benson, a native Alaskan. His entry was the unanimous choice of the panel of judges and was adopted unanimously by both houses of the territorial legislature. There’s synergy here; the blue represents not only the night sky but also the color of a forget-me-not which was later chosen as the state flower. Marie Drake, the assistant commissioner of education wrote a poem about Benson’s symbolism for an educational program about the flag. Elinor Dusenbury, a former Alaska resident, set the poem to music out of, as she put it, “pure unadulterated homesickness for Alaska!” The song was quite popular; it was chosen as the territorial song in 1955 and became the state song when Alaska became the 49th state. It is the only state song about a flag.

Benny Benson.jpg
Benny Benson holding a homemade version of his flag

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue
Alaska’s flag. May it mean to you
The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes, and the flow’rs nearby;
The gold of the early sourdough’s dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and streams;
The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The “Bear,” the “Dipper,” and, shining high,
The great North Star with its steady light,
O’er land and sea a beacon bright.
Alaska’s flag to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier.

Alaska’s Flag

Coming soon(?), the state flags that require minor alterations.

References:

Image Credits:

  • Featured and Other Images: (c) 2020, ComicsTheUniverseAndEverything.net
  • Alaska State Flag: Wikimedia, BlinxTheKitty [Public domain]
  • Colorado State Flag: Wikimedia, Andrew Carlisle Carson [Public domain]
  • The Colorado National Monument, Wikimedia, Rennett Stowe [Public domain]
  • DC Flag: Wikimedia, -xfi- [Public domain]
  • Maryland State Flag: Wikimedia, Michael Wheeler [Public domain]
  • NY State Flag: Wikimedia, Xrman [Public domain]
  • Ohio State Flag: Wikimedia, John Eisenmann [Public domain]
  • Original specification for the Ohio Flag, Wikimedia, John Eisenmann [Public domain]
  • South Carolina State Flag: Wikimedia [Public domain]
  • Tennessee State Flag: Wikimedia, -xfi- [Public domain]
  • Texas State Flag: Wikimedia [Public domain]

Adding the Stars and the Stripes

Happy Independence Day! We’ve made it a tradition to begin flying a historic American flag on each July 4th. In 2018, it was the “Betsy Ross” flag. Last year it was the Bennington Flag. This year we’re flying the only American Flag to have anything other than 13 stripes.

The original United States Flag act was passed on 14 June 1777 and established the familiar 13-stars and 13-stripes that are still recognizable today.

But then, Vermont joined the Union as the fourteenth state in 1791 and Kentucky followed suit the following year. Two years later, the United States changed its flag for the first time, adding both a star and a stripe for each of the new states.

That from and after the first day of May, Anno Domini, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five, the flag of the United States, be fifteen stripes alternate red and white. That the Union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field.

The United States Flag Act of 1794
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But this flag is notable for more than merely the number of stripes. Also known as the “Great Garrison Flag,” it is this version of the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.

It was seeing this flag both before and after that battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem Defence of Fort M’Henry which, when sung to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven became our national anthem in 1931. And that gave this flag its far more famous name, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If you’d thought Vermont and Kentucky waited a long time to be included on the U. S. Flag, the flag wasn’t changed again for another 24 years.

In the meantime, Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), and Mississippi (1817) had joined the union. Tennessee had to wait for nearly a quarter-century for their star to officially be added. That seems strange to me. For Vermont and Kentucky, there was an existing national flag with established symbolism. Now the precedent of including new states had been established; the public responded with a variety of unofficial flags that added stars and frequently stripes, like this version with 17 stars and 17 stripes. It and an assortment of other flags from this time can be seen at the Zaricor Flag Collection.

You might be wondering what our flag would look like if we’d continued to add stripes as well as stars. So did Michael Orelove of the Portland Flag Association. He went a step further and had one made; it looks kind of cool. It’s interesting, but it’s very pinstripey. Joanne’s reaction was that it “messes with my astigmatism.” On the PFA blog, Scott Mainwaring points out that it would look pink from a distance. There are disadvantages, but in the era of printed flags, making such a flag is feasible. I can’t imagine trying to make such a thing by sewing red and white strips of cloth together.

It wasn’t until after the War of 1812, that the congress finally got serious about updating the flag when Peter Wendover, a representative from New York proposed forming an exploratory committee to find “an unessential variation” to the flag. He suffered the fate of many who proposed creating a committee; he was put in charge of it.

Wendover consulted Samuel Reid, “a privateer and naval hero of the War of 1812.” Reid was the first to propose maintaining 13 stripes on the flag. He designed three flags, a people’s flag with 20 stars in a “great star” pattern, a governmental flag for federal use, and a “Standard of the Union” for use at celebrations. Congress settled on the first version, with 20 stars and 13 stripes. Invoking the founders, Wendover argued, “In their memory, and to their honor, let us restore substantially the flag under which they conquered, and at the same time engraft into its figure the after-fruits of their toil.”

An Act to establish the flag of the United States.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field.

And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.

The United States Flag Act of 1818

The 1818 Flag Act did two things that were smart. It limited the number of stripes to 13, and it established that the flag would change on July 4th after each new state joined the union. It remains in force today.

References:

Picture Credits:

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!

A Flag for Elmira

We’ve settled into the new house enough that we’ve finally installed the flagpole. That was a non-trivial project; there’s nothing like a simple task to remind you of your total lack of aptitude for all things handy. This is the first time we’ve lived in the City of Elmira; we’ve lived in Horseheads and Southport and Newfield, but not within the city itself. To mark the occasion, the first flag that we’re flying from our new home is a proposed flag for the City that was designed by Alex Chichester. Last month, I unboxed the very flag that we’re flying and provided links to Alex’s story, about the flag, why he designed it and some of the community’s response to the flag. You can find all of that here.

The current city flag can be seen to the right and it’s nice enough. I asked about purchasing a copy of this flag from the city and I may yet buy one, but to be honest, it’s somewhat bland. The seal is a standard, city seal, but it’s the sort of seal that’s designed for the printed page. It works best on letterhead or in a book where you can look at it carefully and appreciate all of the detail.

Today, I thought I’d look at the proposed flag, which I’m inclined to call the Chichester Flag through the lens of the North American Vexillological Association’s five principles for good flag design as delineated in Good Flag, Bad Flag. Alex’s design is an objectively good flag. Here we go!

Principle 1. KEEP IT SIMPLE: The Flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

Here the Chichester Flag shines. The basic design a purple background with a blue horizontal band across the center. Many flags have shared this basic design, which could also be described as three horizontal stripes in two colors. Latvia, Austria, and Cambodia among others, share this basic design. The two joined gold rings as well as the choice of colors make the flag stand out as distinct from the other flags with similar designs. Simplicity is important and it’s no coincidence that NAVA lists this principle first as flags are meant to be seen from a distance and to either drape or to move in the wind. The Confederate States of America had three national flags in its four years of existence because the first two were easily confused with other flags.

A few weeks ago, while I was driving, I encountered a good illustration of this principle as the car in front of me had a small Canadian Flag sticker on its rear window and it was recognizable as a Canadian Flag even when it was many car lengths ahead of us. You can see this in the leftmost picture below. I pasted the official Elmira flag (middle) and the proposed flag (right) into the same photo and the difference is evident. The proposed flag is recognizable while the official flag could be many other things at this distance, such as the flag of Anchorage, Alaska or Honolulu, Hawaii.

Principle 2. USE MEANINGFUL SYMBOLISM: The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.

The Chichester Flag has nice clear symbolism. The blue band represents the Chemung river which runs through the city. This is apt; the original settlement in the area was founded at the meeting of the Chemung River and the Newtown Creek. It was the completion of the Chemung Canal that connected the Chemung River to Seneca Lake and ultimately to the Erie Canal System. This allowed Elmira to become a regional center of manufacturing and shipping. There is little doubt that the Chemung River had a profound influence on the city and the community.

The two golden interlocking rings represent the uniting of the city’s north, south, east and west sides into a single community. This works both figuratively and concretely as the four sections of the rings that cross the blue band can be seen to represent the four driving bridges that cross the river within the city.

The colors of the flag are also significant. The Elmira College colors are purple and gold and those colors are ubiquitous on campus. The college, which sits in the heart of the city was founded in 1855, nine years before the city was incorporated from the village and part of the town of the same name. The new flag’s designer, Alex said, “I personally identify the city with the color purple,… It’s probably a lot to do with Elmira College. Also, there’s purple and golden wildflowers all over town.”

The wildflower rationale is frequently echoed in stories about why the college chose purple and gold as their school colors, although those stories usually invoke irises, the school flower. The other reason the college usually shares as an inspiration for their choice of colors is that purple and gold were among the colors of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (you can read a bit more about that here). This reason might be even more salient. Elmira had significant links to the women’s movement and this includes the college itself, which was the first college in the U. S. to offer degrees to women that were equivalent to those that were being offered to men.

Elmira also played an important role in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. When we consider this along with the ties to the women’s movement, the fact that the purple portion of the flag evokes an equals sign (=), the flag elicits all of this history.

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.

There’s very little that needs to be said here; the flag contains three colors that contrast nicely. A useful measure of this is whether the flag remains recognizable and attractive when rendered in grayscale. It does. The black and white version remains both striking and distinctive.

As an interesting side note, the NAVA manual defines the basic color set as “red, blue, green, black, yellow and white” and states that other colors “are seldom needed in a good design.” At least part of the reason is that “flag fabric comes in a relatively limited number of colors.” I wonder if this is still true; it seems to me that printed flags have become more common and easily obtained in the 14 years since the manual was written. Either way, the connections between Elmira and the color purple are significant enough to warrant its use.

Principle 4. NO LETTERING OR SEALS: Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.

This is strongly related to the “keep it simple” principle. Seals are difficult to see at a distance and text on printed flags appears reversed on the back, making it difficult to read. To make the text readable on both sides dramatically increases the cost of the flag. The Chichester flag has neither text nor a seal.

Principle 5. BE DISTINCTIVE OR BE RELATED: Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

[Iroquois Confederacy flag]

The Chichester flag can claim both of these characteristics. The color choices and the interlocking rings set the flag apart from other flags with similar designs making it distinctive while it shares some similarities to related flags. The similarities to the Elmira College flag, shown above, are evident. The gold rings can also be seen as an homage to the current Elmira flag as they share its color and evoke its main motif, the circular seal. In a nice coincidence, the purple color refers back to the flag of the Iroquois Confederacy, who inhabited this area of North America before the arrival of European settlers.

Final Words:

This was an enjoyable project and a nice inaugural flag for our new home. I’d never ordered a custom flag before, but the process was easy and straightforward. It’s easy enough that I will probably order more custom flags in the future, when I’m interested in flying something that isn’t easily available.

It is also been exciting to be able to fly a flag that, as far as I know, has never been flown before. That’s been a great deal of fun and I want to thank Alex for allowing me to use his design.

And speaking of Alex, I hope that his campaign to have his flag become the official flag of the City of Elmira is successful. It’s a beautiful flag and his arguments about using the flag to invigorate the community and brand the city deserve careful consideration. If you’re interested in such things, please check out his videos. I think you’ll find them compelling.

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