Friday, April 29, 2016

State Flags, Part 1

A while back, I enjoyed someone's online video and/or article about city flags, and why some of them rule and why some suck, and what can be done to design a flag for one's own city that totally rules. Thoughts about the principles of flag design have been circulating in my brain ever since. And then, a few days ago, I happened upon a page full of the flags of U.S. states and I realized that I immediately knew which ones ruled and which ones sucked.

Characteristics of flags that rule: They tend to be distinctive, direct, fairly simple, and not too difficult to see at medium range or to reproduce with a little attention to detail. They contain symbols which, when explained to the viewer, should have a memorable relevance to the place they represent.

Characteristics of flags that suck: Some contain too much fussy detail, which cannot be distinctly seen without eye strain except at very close range. Some tastelessly beg the question with block letters spelling out the place they represent (though a nice motto or key-word might be acceptable). Some contain politically polarizing imagery, such as the Confederate stars and bars. Some may be just ugly, crude looking, or unintentionally funny, showing a lack of an eye for proportion or color coordination.

As I explore these flag designs, please note that I am indebted to good old Wikipedia, which you should visit if you want to learn more. If you don't, my summaries should suffice...

Part 1: U.S. Flags that Totally Rule
Here is the flag of Alaska. It is eloquently simple: gold stars representing the Big Dipper constellation on a midnight-blue field representing the sky, and in the upper fly corner (towards the edge opposite the flagpole), a somewhat larger star representing the north star, Polaris. It really works for the northernmost state of the U.S.! Worth noting is that the Big Dipper is part of the Great Bear constellation, an animal that thrives in Alaska and symbolizes strength.

This is the flag of Alabama. It is similar to the flag of Florida, but simpler; Florida's version adds a state seal at the center of the red St. Andrew's cross, a.k.a. saltire, on a white field. It is derived from the saw-toothed Cross of Burgundy, the symbol of the Spanish Empire, of which southern Alabama was a part until the early 19th century. The only dent in the appeal of this clean-cut symbol is its history in connection with Jim Crow laws that disfranchised African Americans for some 100 years after the U.S. Civil War.

The flag of Louisiana, shown above, also totally rules. On a pretty blue field, it shows a mother pelican piercing her own breast and feeding the blood to her young; a Christian symbol of sacrifice and charity. The pure white ribbon below the birds' nest displays the state's motto: "Union, Justice, Confidence." I'm OK with it being just a little bit of an eye-strainer; there are far worse examples among the 50 state flags.

So this is Maryland's flag. Kind of psychedelic, isn't it? Alternating quarters of the flag show the heraldic arms of the colony's founder, George Calvert (Lord Baltimore), with red and gold bars serving as a stylized representation of the palisades of a fort. The opposite quarters show the arms of Baltimore's mother's family, the Crosslands, with a bottony cross (a Christian cross with buds at each end, representing the Trinity), divided in turn into alternating quarters of red and white. A gold bottony cross is supposed to decorate the top of the flagpole on which this flag is flown, at least at government buildings.

The state of New Mexico actually has a pledge to its own flag: "I salute the flag of the state of New Mexico, the Zia symbol of perfect friendship among united cultures." It is also worth noting that only Maryland, New Mexico, and two other states have flags that contain no blue. The red-on-yellow colors of this flag are inspired by the Spanish "crown of Aragon" coat of arms, while the central emblem represents the Zia tribe's symbol for the sun. So it pays homage to the Spanish and Native American cultures that preceded American settlement of that state, while also just being a nice, clean, memorable design that coordinates well with the arid southwestern part of the country.

Ohio's flag just kills me. It's not even rectangular! Officially known as the Ohio burgee (meaning the pennant of a naval organization), the swallowtail design honors the state's waterways, including the Ohio River and Lake Erie. Meanwhile, the five alternating bands of red and white symbolize the state's roads. Pointing into the flag from the hoist end is a dark blue triangular field representing the state's hills and valleys. It contains a red disk surrounded by a white ring, representing the letter O (guess what that stands for), the red and white together suggesting the buckeye that gives the state its nickname; arranged around that are 17 stars, arranged to suggest the 13 original states to one side of the disk, plus four more toward the point of the triangle; significantly, Ohio was the 17th state added to the union. It also takes 17 steps to fold the Ohio burgee correctly. How do you like that?

Rhode Island's flag is a little more squarish than most; its height/width ratio is 29:33. This might be appropriate considering what a small state it is. Again, I like its directness and simplicity. It's mostly gold on a white field: a gold fringe around the edges, except at the hoist; a circle formed by 13 large gold stars representing the original 13 states of the union, which R.I. was the 13th to join; a gold anchor at the center, a biblical symbol of hope, and the state's motto "Hope" in gold letters on a blue ribbon below it. The anchor also works on another level, since Rhode Island is a maritime state.

South Carolina's flag is not only hauntingly simple and beautiful - a white crescent and palmetto tree on an indigo field - but it also harks back to heroic military actions during the U.S. Revolutionary War. The symbol of the crescent, inspired by an emblem on some of the troops' caps, decorated a hastily produced battle ensign during the defense of Americans strongholds in coastal South Carolina in 1775. A version with just the crescent, then inscribed with the word "Liberty," flew over a sand fort, reinforced with the trunks of palmetto trees, that withstood a 16-hour bombardment by the British on June 28, 1776. The palmetto then had to be added to the flag of what is now known as the Palmetto State.

Tennessee has this neat flag, which mixes design elements that carry symbolic meaning - such as three white stars, representing the western, middle, and eastern "grand divisions" of the state, unified by the blue circle around them - and ones that exist purely for aesthetic reasons - such as the blue bar along the fly, which was added purely to break up the crimson field that fills most of the flag. The narrow white bands separating the blue and crimson elements seem to exist simply to sharpen the image in the viewer's eye. The precise arrangement of the three stars is spelled out in Tennessee law, apparently to avoid any suggestion of one section of the state having priority over another. It's an unusually long flag, by the way, with a height-to-width ratio of 3:5; compare that, for example, to the 2:3 ratio of the flag below.

Not for nothing is Texas called the Lone Star State. Here is its flag, sort of like the U.S. flag boiled down to its essentials. And of course, that one very big star represents one very big state. The North American Vexillological Association (vexillology is the study of flags, you know) rated this the second-best design out of the 72 flags of every U.S. state and territory and Canadian province. Its colors are the exact shades of dark red, white, and royal blue depicted on the American flag: blue for loyalty, white for purity, red for bravery. The lone star symbolizes solidarity and independence. The wide white and red stripes, one each, may have originally represented the alliance between white settlers and Native Americans in their struggle for independence from Mexico. The Texas flag also has its own pledge: "Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible."

Coming in Part 2: U.S. State Flags that Mostly Rule.

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