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
It’s ubiquitous in the
Is there something special about
Look at these flags of neighboring states, and it requires little further scrutiny to see why
All flag imagery comes from http://www.statesymbolsusa.org/.
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.
Far more flags share the common features of the
It should come as no surprise that the flags that typically meet NAVA’s standards for “good” are the most regionally or nationally recognizable.
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
Perhaps the only jurisdiction in the mid-Atlantic outside of
The top-rated flag in
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
I have yet to see the
The great keystone of the
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.