TT: The State of Flags

JANE: Do you folks have any other flags?  Perhaps ones representing regions, the way we have state flags?

New Mexico State Flag (outside Jim's office)

New Mexico State Flag (outside Jim’s office)

ALAN:  No, we don’t. There aren’t any smaller divisions analogous to your states here. There are vaguely defined geographical areas such as Canterbury in the South Island and Hawke’s Bay and the Waikato in the North Island, but they certainly don’t have flags of their own.

However, having said that, I’ve discovered that Otago, an area deep in the South Island, does actually have a flag, though I have no idea why or what use they make of it. I doubt that anybody outside of Otago knows about it, though.

So tell me about your state flags. How does that work? What are they used for?

JANE: First of all, as to the origin of state flags… I’d always assumed that state flags – at least the earlier ones – were in some way associated with flags of the original thirteen colonies.  However, when I did some research, I learned that I was incorrect.

The tradition of state flags dates, in most cases, to the 1890’s when the World’s Columbian Exposition was held and there was a need to be able to provide a quick visual for each state.  So, in a sense, state flags grew out of the same impulse you outlined last time – a need to unambiguously identify specific areas.

ALAN: Very understandable. That’s a strong motive for having a flag.

JANE: State flag designs have changed over the years, in some cases, multiple times.  Georgia, in particular, seems to have a mania for redesigning its flag.

New Mexico, where I live, has had only one flag and apparently for good reason.  According to a survey done by the North American Vexillogical Association in 2001, New Mexico has the best-designed flag of any U.S. state, territory, or Canadian province.

Georgia, by the way, was rated worst, which apparently led to yet another re-design in 2003.

ALAN: What’s so special about the design of the New Mexico flag?

JANE: I really don’t know all the details that went into the judging, but apparently the Vexillogical Association likes imaginative flags.  Apparently, something like half the state flags have a design described as “seal on a bed sheet,” which is the state seal put on a solid background.  Since seal designs can be heavy on detail, I can see why they would be too busy to serve as unambiguous identifiers.

ALAN: Perhaps they should put a walrus on the bed instead of a seal. What does the design of New Mexico flag do to avoid that trap?

JANE: With great dignity, I am going to ignore your joke.  Walruses indeed!

The New Mexico state flag is simple and striking.  The field is brilliant yellow, rather than the more common blue.  The yellow field is emblazoned with a circle with four radiating arms, these consisting of three lines apiece, coming off it.  This symbol is called a “Zia,” after the tribe that used it in their work.

The colors were taken from the red and yellow of the Cross of Burgundy flag flown by the Spanish empire. Combined with the Zia, the flag represents both native and colonial elements.

Ask me what the Zia symbol means!

ALAN: What does the Zia symbol mean?

JANE: How kind of you!

According to Wikipedia, “Four is a sacred number which symbolizes the Circle of Life: the four directions, the four times of day, the four stages of life, and the four seasons. The circle binds the four elements of four together.”

Another site, devoted to state flags added a fifth element: “the Zia’s belief that with life comes four sacred obligations: one must develop a strong body, a clear mind, a pure spirit, and a devotion to the welfare of others.”

ALAN: That sounds very appropriate.

JANE:  There was even a little “pledge” that used to be said in New Mexico public schools, just in case anyone missed the point: “I salute the flag of the State of New Mexico and the Zia symbol of perfect friendship among united cultures.”

ALAN: Someone has obviously put a lot of thought into that design.

JANE: You’re right!  New Mexico didn’t have an official state flag until 1920.  As with your current situation in New Zealand, a contest was held to suggest designs.  The contest was won by Dr. Harry Mera.  Mera was an archeologist and adapted the Zia symbol from one he found on a nineteenth century pot.

He then combined this with the colors from the Imperial Spanish flag, creating a flag that acknowledged how New Mexico’s complex heritage includes elements from both Spanish and indigenous populations – and the hope that “devotion to the welfare of others” would help these work in harmony.

I asked Jim if he was familiar with Mera and he immediately became very excited. I quote: “H.P. Mera is the dean of New Mexico pottery studies (his pottery reports were just recently collected and republished, because they continue to be relevant).   Mera was responsible for the numbering system for sites in the state. Nearly all of the early numbers in the system are for sites that he visited, mapped, and collected pottery from. Very cool!”

ALAN: That would seem to make Dr. Mera perfectly qualified to design a state flag. I’m glad his talents were properly recognised.

JANE: It’s interesting but, while I’ve been aware of the New Mexico State flag ever since I moved here, those of some of the other states I’ve lived in aren’t so memorable.

Although I lived in both New York and Virginia for some years, their state flags made so little impression on me, I had to go look them up.  It’s no great surprise that both fall into the “seal on a bedsheet” category.

ALAN: If even the residents can’t call the flags to mind, it would seem that the Vexillogical Association’s criticisms are right on the mark!

JANE: Maryland’s flag is interesting though.  It’s quite colorful, using black, gold, red, and white.  It also looks more like a medieval banner than something you’d expect to find in the U.S.

This is because it’s derived from a combination of the Calvert coat of arms and those of the Crossland family, to which Lord Baltimore (who founded the colony) belonged.  His title was pretty medieval sounding too: “Cecil Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore, First Lord Proprietary, Earl Palatine of the Provinces of Maryland and Avalon in America.”

ALAN: I am speechless. What a wonderful title!

But weren’t you born in Washington D.C.? Does it have a flag, and if so what does it look like? Is it yet another walrus?

JANE:  No walrus, or even seal…  D.C. actually has quite a striking flag. It’s based around George Washington’s coat of arms, and features broad red and white strips, with three big red stars.  However, the city emblem gets lost in D.C., where the U.S. flag dominates, as it should, given that the city is the nation’s capital.

ALAN: In some ways that’s a shame – something so striking surely deserves to be more prominent.

JANE: Certainly, the residents of D.C. would agree.  So, of the four states I’ve lived in for any time (my birthplace, D.C., as I have repeatedly commented is not a state) two of the flags made an impression.

I wonder how our readers feel about their own state flags?


6 Responses to “TT: The State of Flags”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    The irony about the California flag is that the California golden bear, the state’s official animal and the one portrayed on the flag, is an extinct subspecies* of grizzly bear that was killed off in the 1920s. We’re the only state that has an extinct animal on our flag, and it may be why we’ve got some of the most stringent environmental laws in the Country.

    *Grizzly bear taxonomy is a mess. They’re part of the brown bear complex that stretches across Asia and Europe as well. Given how variable brown bears are and how messy the taxonomic names are, it’s not clear to me whether the golden bear actually is a separate subspecies. Since there reportedly few golden bear specimens, I’m not sure whether the question can ever be resolved, either.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I’d also add, looking at the list of flags (link to results on Wikipedia) that it’s not just “seal on a bedsheet,” it’s “seal on a blue bedsheet.” The bottom 20 flags all use this design, sometimes with the state’s name on the flag to help differentiate them from the others. It looks like about half the flags use some variation of this design.

    California, with the bear and red star, looks positively soviet in comparison.

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Nobody seems to realize that the Virginia state flag has a bare=breasted Amazon dispatching a tyrant.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I certainly never noticed! Scandal! Especially for a “conservative” state. Maybe you should try and get a bill introduced to put a bra on that woman!

      • CBI Says:

        In travels around the country, I’ve found that the southern and western states, as a rule, tend to be more tolerant, at least in some ways. For example, mothers nursing children — in church — without any “cover blanket” I’ve seen in Oklahoma and New Mexico, with now particular comment.

        Virginia is a bit different, with its historic gentry nature, but a figure from classic mythology (a bare-breasted Amazon) doesn’t seem out of character.

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