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.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/36/The_Ohio_State_Flag_%28design%29.jpg

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]

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!