Magazine | June 26, 2017, Issue

Fifty Flags

On state ensigns fetching and plain

The United States has the best flag. Does anyone doubt this? Here’s something well beyond dispute: We Americans love our flag. We pledge our allegiance to it. We sing a national anthem about it. We give it nicknames: “Old Glory,” the “Stars and Stripes,” the “Red, White, and Blue.” We raise it at schools, hang it in sports arenas, and hoist it above car dealerships. We even have Flag Day, which falls on June 14 but isn’t as honored as a better-known flag-flying celebration three weeks later.

So we’re good at flags — except when we’re not, which is pretty often when it comes to state flags. Have you seen Nebraska’s? Flag people call it an “SOB,” or “a seal on a bedsheet,” which is to say it slaps the state seal on a navy-blue background. If that sounds familiar, it’s because about half the states follow this dull design. Most seals are detailed images meant for close-up viewing, not quick identification at a distance. They should stay off flags.

Yet Nebraska’s SOB is unusually bad. For reasons that nobody can quite explain, it features a little yellow man who swings a hammer at an anvil, rather than a person who husks corn near a homestead or a sandhill crane along the Platte River or something else that might actually evoke Nebraska. Weirder still, mountains loom in the distance. They’re supposed to represent the Rockies, which aren’t even in Nebraska. The banner’s gravest offense, however, is blandness. In December, Nebraska’s flag flew upside down above the state capitol. According to the Omaha World-Herald, nobody noticed for ten days.

This sort of things vexes “vexillologists,” which is a fancy-pants word for flag geeks. Whitney Smith invented the term to describe the subculture of amateur art historians who study flags and the stories behind them. They tend to have strong opinions about what makes a good flag. Smith, who died last year, once summed up the basic principles: Flags, he wrote, should be “simple, striking, and easily recognizable.”

That describes a few of America’s state flags. New Mexico’s displays a distinctive image with local roots: the sun symbol of the Zia Pueblo. The red and yellow imitate Spain’s national colors, paying tribute to the region’s colonial heritage. The flag fits New Mexico perfectly, and there’s nothing else like it. In 2001, the North American Vexillological Association asked its members to rate the state and provincial flags of the United States and Canada on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 as the highest possible score. New Mexico finished first, earning an average of 8.61 points. (Nebraska came in second to last, with 2.98. Only Georgia fared worse — and two years later, it ditched its rotten design for a better one.)

Several other states also have worthy flags. Texas even derives its nickname, the “Lone Star State,” from its world-famous emblem. Like Texas, Ohio uses the national colors plus stars and stripes (and a circle that represents a buckeye), but its flag comes cut in the angled shape of a cavalry guidon rather than a business-as-usual rectangle. South Carolina’s palmetto tree is unique and old, harking back to the American Revolution. Wyoming’s flag features a bison in white silhouette — an outstanding design marred only by the inclusion of the state seal. Defenders insist that the seal looks like a brand and therefore suggests ranch life. They’re wrong, but it’s an interesting point. Maryland’s flag is a wild mash-up of a pair of slanted yellow-and-black checkerboards with a pair of red-and-white fleurs-de-lis. People tend to love it or hate it, but it succeeds gloriously in one important way: It’s instantly recognizable as a symbol of Maryland.

The main purpose of a flag is to unite people behind patriotic, military, or civic causes. A good flag stirs emotions, tingling spines at Olympic ceremonies and encouraging soldiers to hold fast. “In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment,” wrote C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. “The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.” It’s no coincidence that state flags began to catch on after the Civil War, often modeled on the standards that helped troops distinguish between units from Maine, Minnesota, and Mississippi. New technologies of mass production also encouraged their spread. In the centennial year of 1876, only nine of 38 states had flags. By 1926, all 48 states had adopted them.

Arizona came up with a good one. When it was a territory, its National Guard rifle team wanted a special banner for a shooting competition in Ohio. Colonel Charles W. Harris proposed 13 red and yellow rays emanating from a copper star above a blue field. The colors bring to mind Spanish heritage, mining, and the Colorado River. After Arizona became a state, the legislature made the flag official. Some have complained that it looks too much like Imperial Japan’s rising-sun flag, and lawmakers apparently considered a design with a Gila monster, the venomous desert lizard. This runner-up sounds like a promising concept — and it shows that Arizona has more usable flag ideas than it knows what to do with, compared with dozens of states that can’t even manage a single one.

A vibrant federalism calls for excellent state flags that foster a kind of localized patriotism. Lots of countries don’t have states, and many of those that do, such as India and Mexico, mostly don’t bother with state flags. In the United States, we have not only states with flags but also cities with them. Chicago and Washington, D.C., own the best, with simple designs that residents admire and many others can identify. (The city with the worst flag? Check out Milwaukee’s.) Even political movements rally behind them: Gay-rights activists wave rainbow flags, and the tea partiers revived the old “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, sometimes called the “Gadsden flag.”

Any political project that prefers local autonomy to federal control ought to have good symbols. When Whitney Smith described the importance of flags in his definitive volume, The Flag Book of the United States, he waxed Tocquevillian: “The diversity and proliferation of flags and flag customs in the United States mirror the strong pluralism that infuses the social organization of the country from the federal government down to the smallest neighborhood association.” So proud Pennsylvanians deserve better than a flag that features the bad color combo of black horses on a navy-blue field, surrounding yet another yawn-inducing state seal.

California has a fine flag, with a grizzly bear and a red star. Legend says that pioneers assembled the first one from women’s dresses and dyed it with berry juice. Nobody knows for sure because the original went up in flames following San Francisco’s earthquake in 1906. Whatever the truth, the pattern stuck. The modern flag also prints “California Republic” in black lettering, violating a favorite rule of vexillologists: No words. “If you need to write a name on your flag, your symbolism has failed,” says Ted Kaye, a retired businessman who now devotes himself to flags. He’s right about that — and states such as Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Wisconsin ought to strip their names from their flags. California, though, may deserve a pass because the word “republic” can remind left coasters who whine about the Electoral College that we don’t live in a democracy.

States with flags that require an extreme makeover might hold contests. That’s what Oklahoma did nearly a century ago. Its first state flag was red, with a star in the middle that enclosed a big “46,” because Oklahoma is the 46th state. The Daughters of the American Revolution thought it looked vaguely Communist, so they sponsored a competition to replace it. The winner recommended an image of a Choctaw shield and peace pipe on a light-blue background. This proposal, formally adopted in 1925, came from a woman with a wonderful name: Louise Funk Fluke.

In an age of sophisticated design software and social media’s crowdsourcing power, flag reform ought to be child’s play. For Alaska — way back in the pre-statehood days of the 1920s — it really was. The American Legion held a contest, which generated ideas both promising (a polar bear) and dreadful (the state seal on a blue background). The winning entry met each of Smith’s criteria: simple, striking, and recognizable. Today, it’s one of the best flags in the Union, featuring the Big Dipper and the North Star. It didn’t take a statesman or a veteran artist or even a vexillologist. Instead, its creator was Benny Benson, a 13-year-old Indian boy who grew up in an orphanage.

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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