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.

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.


Image Credits:

  • Featured and Other Images: (c) 2020,
  • 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]

The UFP Flag and Beginning Vexillology

We’re flying a new flag this morning; specifically the flag of the United Federation of Planets. If flew for a day a few weeks ago, but it was wet and windy and the flag kept getting tangled around the pole so I decided to take it down for a bit.

In the meantime, we purchased a Valley Forge Tangle-Free Aluminum Pole (not pictured above) from the Horseheads Do It Center. It’s working beautifully so far. The flag is affixed directly to the pole through the grommets and the entire top section of the pole rotates freely. The weight of the flag itself keeps it from wrapping around the pole.

I like this flag, however, it puts me in mind of a lot of state flags, most of which are pretty dreadful. I therefore thought I’d look at it in terms of the North American Vexillogical Association’s criteria for evaluating/creating flags.

NAVA’s five criteria for creating a good flag were first codified in 2001 when they conducted a survey to choose the best and worst flags on the continent. These are:

  1. The design of the flag should be simple enough that a child could draw it from memory.
  2. It should use clear and understandable symbolism.
  3. The flag should use common colors; probably no more than four different ones.
  4. Both text and seals should be avoided.
  5. Finally, the flag should be unique as it represents a distinct entity. It can however, show similarities to other flags, to show connections.

A nice example of the last criterion is the similarities between the flags of Ohio and the United States. The flags are distinct but the common elements make it clear that the US and Ohio are closely related.

Flag of  Nebraska

We could segue to a long discussion of state and province flags, but we’ll save that for another day. The existing state flag closest to the bottom of the NAVA survey was Nebraska.

Flag of  Alaska

The dubious distinction for last place was given to Georgia, but that flag was changed in 2003. Meanwhile, my favorite state flag has to be Alaska; simple and elegant with clear symbolism. It’s a classic.

The UFP flag fares pretty well according to the NAVA standards. The design is simple and clean. The colors, blue and white are classic and attractive. The weakest element of the flag is the text. Like the conventional wisdom assumes, it’s difficult to read as the flag waves in the wind, especially as the text is backward on one side of the flag. It’s also an odd choice; the Federation contained over 150 member worlds at one point, each of which probability had its own language. I think it remains an odd choice even though English had evolved into “Federation Standard.”

Flag of the United Nations.svg

To think about the symbolism, it makes sense to look back to the obvious inspiration for the UFP flag, the Flag of the United Nations. The blue color was chosen in contrast to “red, the war color.” The world map represents all the people of the world. The map projection is surrounded by olive branches, a common metaphor for peace.

The similarities to the UFP flag are striking and the symbolism transfers in a straightforward manner. The branches are similar, though may not be of terrestrial origin. The galactic map with the density of the stars in an off-center diagonal line is evocative of a section of one of the spiral arms of the galaxy.

Here's what the Milky Way may look like from deep space ...

Earth and presumably most of the other member worlds of the Federation are located in the Orion Spur, a minor arm of the Milky Way, which exists between the Perseus and Sagittarius Arms of the galaxy. In universe and otherwise, the similarities between the UFP flag and the UN flag make sense since one organization is clearly an inspiration for the other. If the UN still existed in the 23rd Century, the two flags might be too similar to be flown together, but I suspect the UN flag has been supplanted by a “United Earth” flag.

One place where the symbolism of the UFP flag seems lacking is that there are three stars in the galactic map that are stylized as four-pointed stars rather than circles. These stand out and in a standard flag, these might represent the founding worlds of the Federation. Unfortunately, there are four; Earth, Vulcan, Andor and Tellar Prime. This is not surprising. The UFP flag was designed long before the founding worlds were codified in “These are the Voyages…” the series finale of Star Trek: Enterprise. I might be inclined to add a fourth four-pointed star.