After a century of relative stasis, a growing trend of states are debating whether to upgrade the look of their state flags.
State flags weren’t really a thing until states needed a way to showcase a distinctive symbol at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This began a trend, and most states adopted an official flag between 1893 and the First World War.
After a century of relative stasis, a growing trend of states are debating whether to upgrade the look of their state flags. Every state and territory in the United States flies an official state flag. Most incorporate the state’s seal on a plain background (often dark blue) — to the vexation of vexillologists, those who study the history, symbolism, and usage of flags. Yes, vexillology is a real thing.
Identifying the oldest state flag is complicated. Many of today’s state flags incorporated symbols and unofficial flags that date back centuries but weren’t adopted as official state flags until much later. For example, the design of the Rhode Island flag can be traced back to 1640 but wasn’t adopted until 1897. Similarly, California’s “bear flag” symbol originated in 1856 but wasn’t officially adopted until 1911 (the California grizzly bear depicted went extinct by the 1920s).
That’s because official state flags weren’t really a thing until states needed a way to showcase a distinctive symbol at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (where the Ferris Wheel also debuted). This began a trend, and most states adopted an official flag between 1893 and the First World War. The official flags of Hawaii and Texas predate this period because they both served as the official flags of independent countries, originally flown in 1817 and 1839 in the Hawaiian Kingdom and the Republic of Texas, respectively.
Many of the original Southern flags incorporated the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag. In 2021, legislators in Mississippi voted to replace the state flag that up until that point had incorporated the confederate flag. A commission eventually adopted a modern design based on the state’s pre-Civil War symbol of the magnolia. Utah chose to redesign its flag with a more modern look with the hopes of boosting state pride. Lawmakers voted to adopt a new flag design earlier this year, which ditches the old seal on blue background look in favor of a simple design featuring a beehive (representing progress and hard work in the Beehive State's motto “industry”).
A handful of states — including Illinois, Minnesota, Maine, and Michigan — are debating flag redesigns as well. A trend from state seals to a design “so simple that a child can draw it from memory” would please vexillologists, whose favorite state flag is New Meixico’s aesthetic design. And if you think this is too many words spent on state flags, wait until you dive into the fascinating world of city flags.
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