Saturday, November 7, 2009

Judging a flag by its wavelength.

Every nation state has a representative flag, and in most countries, the smaller bodies of government also choose to self-identify through a representative banner as well. In North America, every Canadian province and territory has a distinctive flag, as do each of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. As much as we have drilled into our heads the US states and capitals (arguably at the expense of other world geography), it is rare that our education emphasizes any familiarity with state flags. By most measurements, knowing flags is not indicative of a broader proficiency that has achieved a widely agreed upon measurable social value, so I certainly raise no objections to the fact that flags are not taught in elementary social studies or civics classes (do we even have civics classes anymore?). I would have no business complaining about our collective state flag illiteracy; I don’t know many of the flags by heart myself. What is remarkable is how state flags in the US remain simultaneously the most prized and parochial means of political expression in certain social settings. We often know at least a dozen or so states’ nicknames (perhaps because so many of their top universities use them as mascots—think Hoosiers, Buckeyes, Tar Heels, etc). At least a few states can boast songs that are widely known, such as Connecticut’s “Yankee Doodle”, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, or “Georgia on My Mind” (music written by Hoosier Hoagy Carmichael). But flags, for all their visual pomp, rank on par with state birds and state flowers (and only slightly above state pies) for insularity within their respective states. Chances are most people can readily identify the flag in their home state—it flies outside almost any public building—but few could distinguish the flags of even their neighboring states in a blind test.

What is it about state flags that make them so hard to distinguish? Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but my suspicion is that even the most poorly traveled Americans can probably make out at least one or two other nations’ flags, even if they’ve never traveled there. The Canadian National flag is hard to confuse, the British Union Jack seems omnipresent, and the Mexican flag is increasingly visible in assorted niches across the American landscape. Virtually every American can identify the battle flag of the Confederate states and its profoundly complicated array of connotations. Many ethnic restaurants will fly the flag of their national origin, and it is certainly common for hyphenated Americans (particularly Irish or Italian) to feature their heritage in a flag on the front bumper or dangling from their rear view mirrors.

But most state flags fail to resonate much outside their own boundaries. One indisputable exception—and there are others—is the flag of Maryland, waving proudly here below near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor:

It’s ubiquitous in the Old Line State—certainly far more than any state in the northeast, one sees it flying proudly outside homes, small businesses, and public spaces. It also features subtly as a central emblem on the license plate that the state has been using for decades. Marylanders seem inordinately proud of their flag, and even if the average citizen out west doesn’t recognize it offhand, the majority of people in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states would probably have no difficulty in pointing out the Maryland flag.

Is there something special about Maryland’s flag? Well, according to vexillologists (those engaged in the scholarly study of flags), it really is just better than most of the others in the Northeast. Case in point: I lived for two years in the neighboring Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and I couldn’t for the life of me conjure a clear image of their flag. But Maryland’s burned into my mind after just a visit or two. Not all flags are created equal, and some fundamentally achieve their communicative goal far better than others; Maryland is one of them. Vexillology as a study combines the ancient practice of heraldry with the much more contemporary discipline of semiotics, the latter of which earns far more academic attention in determining what constitutes an effective flag.

Look at these flags of neighboring states, and it requires little further scrutiny to see why Maryland stands out:


West Virginia



New Jersey

New York

All flag imagery comes from

Every other state has an elaborate representation of the seal resting on a solid color field, usually medium blue. The content of these states’ flags is redundant and too intricate to be seen from a distance, which is often how people perceive a flag. Maryland’s flag’s two striking patterns occupy alternate quarters: the canton and lower right quarters (black and yellow) derive from the coat of arms of the family of Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, founder of Maryland colony. The other quarters (red and white) represent Crossland secessionists in a state largely divided between Union and Confederate sentiments during the Civil War; the combination of the two shows the reconciliation between the two under a single state government. The flag is the only one based on the heritage of English heraldry.

Far more flags share the common features of the Delawares, the New Yorks, the Pennsylvanias. No doubt some residents in their respective states feel an attachment to their native flags, but they lack the communicative force of Maryland. Semioticians would undoubtedly deconstruct the correlation between the function of a flag to its direct symbolism far better than I can, but it seems clear that a good flag boasts a few fundamental features. The North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) provides a simple set of heuristics for amateur flag designers, called “Good Flag, Bad Flag”. Its standards are quite straightforward: 1) keep it simple enough that a child could draw it from memory; 2) use meaningful symbols where colors and patterns relate to what it symbolizes; 3) use no more than three basic, contrasting colors; 4) avoid lettering or elaborate seals; 5) be distinctive enough that its not a duplicate of another flag, but evoke another flag if there are understood similarities or connections. Maryland might not abide by all these rules—its four colors may be a bit too complicated for a child to reproduce—but it’s vastly superior to the ornate, sometimes silly, often amateurishly drawn state seals that comprise almost half of US state flags.

It should come as no surprise that the flags that typically meet NAVA’s standards for “good” are the most regionally or nationally recognizable.

South Carolina’s palmetto tree and crescent moon grace bumpers, shirts, key chains, and other paraphernalia across the Southeast, and anyone in that region would recognize it as the most memorable state flag. Outside of Dixie, the symbol for the Palmetto State may often seem familiar without necessarily evoking South Carolina, or it recalls the general essence of the state for those who may not recognize it specifically as the state flag.

Another recognizable flag, the Texas symbolism is perhaps the most nationally famous, partly thanks to the rich clarity of its lone star, but also because of its ubiquity—again bedecking clothes, license plates, bandannas, and so forth. Some of the flag’s high profile is due to it being a very populous state, some of it no doubt also due to the proud Texan swagger, but much of it is because it is a semantically effective flag—it deserves to be displayed everywhere. (Compare this to other populous states such as California, whose Bear Flag has achieved some salience outside the state but is hardly iconic, or New York, whose flag is generally unknown.)

Alaska’s flag corroborates NAVA’s emphasis that flags should be so simple a child can replicate it; one of the top-ranked flags was designed by a 13-year old that won a statewide contest. Until recently it had long been featured on the Alaska license plate.

Perhaps the only jurisdiction in the mid-Atlantic outside of Maryland that earns acclaim for its flag is the District of Columbia, modeled after Washington’s family’s coat of arms. NAVA ranks it as the single best design among 150 city flags. Nearly all street signs in Washington DC feature a miniature recreation of the flag close to the stanchion.

The top-rated flag in North America, according to the 2001 NAVA survey, is that of New Mexico, featuring a red Zia sun symbol on a yellow field, which has typically appeared prominently on the state’s license plate in varying manifestations over the years. It elegantly recalls the state’s Native American and southwest heritage using a predominant yellow atypical of US state flags—it’s memorable, easy to replicate, semantically rich, and distinctive.

Judging from the fact that the vexillologists can summarize the essence to good flag-making in just a few simple points, one might question the complexity of the practice. Many have apparently called into question the rationale used by NAVA members in ranking all the states and Canadian provinces by the quality of their flags, particularly those in low-ranked states. NAVA shrewdly posts some letters showing reactions to their decisions: an anonymous Vermonter defended the state’s flag for using the seal across a blue background, arguing that it bests conveys the state’s ideals, whereas the New Mexican flag was stolen from the Zia Pueblo and is essentially meaningless. His assertion as an alternate opinion effectively limns the need for a semiotic approach that overrides subjectivity and matters of personal taste: after all, who is NAVA to say that flags with few colors and symbolic simplicity are always better? Most of the states that use seals as their primary charge are employing literal, denotative symbols; those with shapes and colored stripes, chevrons, or pales are operating more connotatively or figuratively. While it is unreasonable to assert that a state seal makes for poor flag content, the ability of some state flags to transcend their function as a basic representation of a political body overwhelmingly favors the Maryland, South Carolina, Texas. These flags managed to capture an ineffable essence of their respective states that the overly literal, text and motto-laden flags fail to do. Their semantic breadth gives them a versatility that seems appropriate, even fashionable as an accessory to clothing or a vehicle.

I have yet to see the Pennsylvania flag on a person’s car; chances are I’d forget it again if I did see it. And I can’t help referring back to Pennsylvania because the commonwealth does have a powerful icon it employs widely in public funded and folk signage across its highways:

The great keystone of the Keystone State, embodying the notion that it functions just like the great key stone to a gateway arch, linking the Midwest to the Northeast while holding them both together. Why doesn’t it figure prominently into the state’s flag? The expressive properties we ascribe to the most memorable, well-loved flag designs seem to suggest that they operate semiotically far more as a logo than portraiture. The most omnipresent and enduring advertising gizmos are virtually never ornate: McDonalds’ golden arches, the Nike swoosh, the bitten apple of Apple (whatever color it is). Although it is hard to enrich this comparison by recalling history’s unsuccessful logos because we forget them as a company scrambles to reinvent its brand to save its bottom line, most of the bad flags are frozen in time for our judgment, immune to the marketplace. Temporal and cultural influences prove that vexillology is not as simple as it may seem. To prove it, the State of Georgia revised its flag in 2001 in response to mounting controversy toward the prominence of the old Confederate battle flag within the design featured since 1956. The revised flag, rushed through the Georgia General Assembly, upgraded the image while trying to appease those who opposed the change:

It violates nearly all principles of good flag design: state seal on a dull blue background, lots of text (including the state name—twice), and a series of miniature flags embedded within the larger one, outside of their correct chronology. This reformist flag survived two years. Its replacement, which won in a 2003 referendum, hardly ranks among the best designed, but it manages to achieve far better readability while appeasing both civil rights groups and those who hoped to preserve recognition of Southern heritage (it recalls the “Stars and Bars” of the original secessionist flag).

The array of symbols on flag’s fabric—the real focus of this blog post—is obviously laden with semantic content that no doubt helps explain why Maryland and other flags simply “work” better. But vexillology can also encompass the symbolic significance of the height of flags on the mast, the shape, the public display, the material, the handling, the unfurling, burial, or even the burning. Maryland even boasts added significance for being the only state that requires a specific type of flagpole used to hoist the flag (code 2.03). The sacrosanct nature by which many hold their nation’s flags demonstrates that certain design standards deserve attention; Maryland’s meretricious heraldry elevates its identity over its neighbors in this regard. Even this blurred wikipedia photo shows how powerfully it stands out, easily out-blinging Old Glory.


Ashley James said...

Nice post. I recently stumbled upon this link with the Benin Empire flag and found it stunning. Hope you enjoy:

The Urbanophile said...

The Indianapolis city flag is quite good, I think.

One point on Texas: its flag is very similar to Puerto Rico's, which has a similar ubiquitousness to the Mexican flag in various urban locales. That probably helps its recognizability. When I first visited Texas and saw their flag, it threw me for a loop.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the posts. Love the Benin Empire flag, Ashley. The current flag of Mozambique should ruffle some feathers.

Urbanophile, I completely agree with you about the Texas flag and often confused it with Puerto Rico as well. It's even more similar to Chile's national flag. Indianapolis' flag, according to the NAVA ranking of top 150 flags in US cities, is ranked 8th overall. Last, if I recall, is Pocatello ID, and Boston is near the bottom for big cities.

cdc guy said...

The Indiana State flag is not bad; Alaska's borrowed its colors and motif (though without the torch of Liberty). Indiana's theme was "nineteenth star"; almost a century and a half later, Alaska became "the North star" state.

Ohio's state flag is the most distinctive, as it's the only pennant-shaped state flag.

Colorado's is also very distinctive and easy to read, with its big red C (play on the Spanish name of the river) and golden orb on blue and white stripes.

Anonymous said...

The main thrust of your article is well thought out. I sense a bit of borrowing from the NAVA article where they ranked 72 flags, and the ugliest in the universe was Georgia's blue placemat.

There were a few errors in your piece however. Virginia has no state song. Former Gov/Former Mayor doug wilder eliminated the black written song to protect those 7 people in the Old Dominion who have no sense of history or state pride.

The current Georgia state flag is nearly an exact copy of the Confederate Battleflag of the 27th Georgia Infantry Regt "Zachry Rangers". In actuality, the Georgia secession banner was a white flag with a red star.

As a point of fact, the so called "civil rights" crowd that had been clamoring for the demise of the old 1956 Georgia State Flag were fighting against the square version of the Confederate Battle Flag, which is known as the Battleflag of the Army of Northern Virginia pattern (RE Lee Commanding) - it was NEVER touched by the klan or any hate group. The ANV CBF was a Soldier's Flag.

The current flag is based on the 27th Ga and the 1st National Confederate Flag - which is a Governmental Flag.

On the heralditry of English symbols on American Flags... Perhaps Hawaii might take issue with Maryland being the only 1?

If you ever get a chance to do some flag history.... A REAL great and funny "Oops!" story can be told of the New Hampshire State Flag

Focus on the Frigate Raliegh, and ask why do the New Hampshirites want to show the rest of us a weapon that was used by the British against the Americans during the Revolutionary War (HINT - it has something to do with a Captain who got scared and abandoned ship)

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous. Sorry to slow to get back to you. I wouldn't hesitate to assert that much of my research does derive from NAVA--the organization's analysis from a semiotic perspective isn't so detailed, but it convincingly defends its rankings. Interesting to know that Virginia no longer has a state song; I'm sure there are others that lack what we perceive to be as quintessential elements of defining state identity. (Sometimes their absence of a respective song/flower/motto endows a certain degree of identity in itself.)