The Official Language of the United States

The official language of the United States is English, of course! Everyone knows that. Easiest Cat Flag blog post ever. Well, see you next time, Cat Flaggers! Have a wonderful 4th of Jul…

Wait a second.

Of course it’s not that simple. Otherwise, why would I blog about it?

No, believe it or not the United States of America has no official language! This is a very unusual distinction, as only seven other countries don’t have a legally-recognized official language.

What is an official language, anyway? It’s a language that is given a special status by the laws of a country as the language of formal government business. Usually, this also gives the official language a symbolic status as the “national language”, symbolizing the unity of the country’s people. For example, in Pakistan, 74 different languages are spoken, with five languages having more than ten million speakers. However, the Pakistani government designated Urdu as the official language of the country to bind the people of Pakistan together, and most Pakistanis are able to speak fluent Urdu, which is useful when talking to someone with a different native tounge.

However, official languages are also sometimes used to symbolically recognize minority groups in a country and be inclusive toward them. Canada has two official languages: English and French. This is because most Canadians speak English in their day-to-day lives, but some Canadians, particularly in the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, speak French instead. All acts of the Canadian national government, from laws to court rulings to official documents, must be in both languages. On top of that, Canada’s highest-ranking political leaders are expected to be bilingual.

Sometimes countries can go to extremes with their official languages. South Africa has eleven official languages. Neighboring Zimbabwe has 16. India, arguably, has the most official languages, ranging from 18 to 23, depending on what you count, as India’s language laws are quite complicated and often contradictory, with different levels and degrees of official-ness assigned to each language.

Yet the good ol’ U-S-of-A has never actually passed any law that declares any official language whatsoever. Which begs the obvious question: why?

Well, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Various important figures in American history from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt have proposed formal declarations of an official language for the United States, and there is an entire political movement that lobbies for an official language law. Naturally, all of these proposals have suggested English as the official language, except that one time in 1923 when Congressman Washington J. McCormick proposed a bill to make “American” our official language.

Oh, and you may have also heard a story that in 1795, Congress almost voted to make German our official language, but this is patently untrue – what actually happened was that Congress voted on whether or not to permit a printer to translate the federal laws into German, and adjourned before any decision could be made.

Regardless, it seems rather odd that in spite of all these proposals over the years, we never have formally adopted English as our official language. I mean, almost every other country has an official language, after all! Yet, believe it or not, there are actually groups that staunchly oppose any declaration of an official language, arguing that doing so would violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and only serve to stoke anti-immigrant hatred and discrimination.

Still, I personally feel there is another reason that America has never adopted an official language. We don’t need one. About 80% of Americans speak English at home, and almost 60% of those who don’t can still speak English “very well”, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. English may not be our official language, but it’s sort of an unofficial-official language. I mean, almost all formal government business at the federal level is conducted in English, which as we stated in the beginning, is what an official language is for. Whenever some member of Congress proposes a bill to make English our official language, it dies in committee, not because the other members of Congress are opposed to the idea, but because they have more important things to worry about.

But you know who does have the time to worry about meaningless things like official languages? The states.

That’s right, thanks in large part to those official-language advocates I mentioned earlier, 32 state governments have formally declared English as an official language of their state, including my home state of California. Plus, all five of the U.S. territories have English as an official language as well.

You will notice, though, that I said English is an official language of these places. That’s because, in some cases, these states and territories have given official status to other languages alongside English. Hawaii has two official languages: English and Hawaiian. In Alaska, all 20 of the indigenous languages spoken by native peoples in the state were made co-official in 2014. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, has Spanish and English as official languages, with Spanish as the “primary” official language. American Samoa has English and Samoan as co-official. Chamorro is an official language on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, while the latter also includes Carolinian among its official language list as well.

Then you have some states that are unusual cases. When New Mexico became a state, it had two official languages, English and Spanish. However, that clause has since lapsed, and the state no longer has any official language, though its laws give certain protections to Spanish speakers. Similarly, Louisiana has never had an official language, but unofficially, it has always been a bilingual state with English and French both being used by the state government.

That’s not even to mention all of the many Indian reservations across the United States, most of which have declared their tribe’s traditional languages as their official language, as part of an effort to help preserve these languages. It is very common for schools on reservations to teach these tribal languages to the next generation.

I suppose it was inevitable that a country that is home to speakers of at least 350 languages would have a complicated relationship with language. Still, it’s strange and bizarre facts about my home country like these that are a part of what I love so much about it. Stay weird, America, and have a Happy 4th of July!

Advertisements

Finland in WWII: The Democratic Axis Power

World War II was the largest, bloodiest conflict in human history. The war either directly or indirectly affected almost every country on Earth, with 62 countries officially declaring war and even most neutral countries impacted by the war in some way. Yet most of what we hear about the war in the history books, documentaries on TV, Hollywood movies and video games is centered around the conflicts between the biggest players: Germany, Italy, and Japan on the one side and the United States, Britain, and the USSR on the other. Many of the smaller countries tend to get left out of the story.

Today, we are going to talk about one of those smaller countries: Finland. A country of about five million people living on the eastern edge of Scandinavia, between Sweden on the west and Russia on the east, Finland has been a stable and prosperous democracy since it won its independence in 1918. Yet during World War II, this modern, democratic society joined forces with Nazi Germany, the most evil and ruthless totalitarian dictatorship in history. What could possibly have made Finland’s leaders decide to ally their nation with such a monster?

Common enemies. Namely, the Soviet Union.

First, a little background on Finnish history. The Finns are a unique people of somewhat mysterious origin. During the Middle Ages, Sweden gradually conquered and colonized Finland, spreading Christianity and Scandinavian culture. Swedish rule in Finland lasted for centuries until coming to a rather abrupt end in 1809, when Russia conquered the country. Under Russian rule, the Tsar added the title “Grand Duke of Finland” to his list of titles, but otherwise mostly left Finland alone and let the Finns handle their own affairs. However, later tsars like Alexander III and Nicholas II decided to impose much more direct control over the country and tried to “Russianize” the Finnish people, a plan that met plenty of resistance among the Finns.

This leads me to 1917 and the Russian Revolution. When the Bolsheviks seized power, Finnish society was divided between Communist “Reds” backed by the Russian Bolsheviks and pro-democracy, pro-independence “Whites” aided by Germany. In a brief civil war, the Whites won decisively, securing Finland’s independence and adopting a democratic constitution.

Now, let’s fast-forward a bit to 1939, and the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Publicly, the agreement was one of peace and establishing trade links, but it secretly included a clause whereby the Soviets and Germans would carve Poland up between each other. The German invasion of Poland just nine days later sparked the outbreak of WWII in Europe, and it was swiftly followed by the Soviet invasion of Poland.

Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, the USSR had mostly kept to itself in the 1930’s, pursuing a policy of “Socialism in One Country” as it industrialized and modernized. However, by 1939, Stalin was confident enough in his country’s strength that he wanted to flex its muscle. Soviet forces took over Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the Red Army invaded Finland on November 30, 1939.

Stalin almost certainly was supremely confident in success. The mighty Red Army would surely steamroll the puny Finnish militia, and surely he would have the support of those who had backed the Reds in Finland’s civil war just two decades prior. He even had a puppet Communist government all set up and ready to take over once the war was won.

That’s when the mighty Red Army found itself being picked off one by one by Finnish snipers on skis.

You thought I was joking, didn’t you? Nope, not joking.

Yeah, it turns out that Stalin was his own worst enemy. Paranoid and obsessive, Stalin systematically killed or imprisoned anyone he thought had even the remotest chance of being a threat to his rule, and by some estimates he actually killed more people than Hitler had. As a result, the leadership of the Red Army was based more on political loyalty and ideological purity than basic competence. One would think that Russia, of all countries, would know how to fight a war in winter, but instead the Finns humiliated the Soviet forces with the ferocity of their resistance.

Stalin had underestimated just how much the memory of Russianization motivated Finns to refuse to accept a return to Russian rule, and overestimated how much support there was for Communism in the Finnish working class. After their victory, it turns out, the Whites decided to pursue moderate political and economic reforms that helped the poor in order to weaken public support for Communism, and these political strategies had worked. Stalin was seen as a conqueror, not a liberator.

The humiliation led to an immediate shake-up at the top of the Red Army’s command structure. Within months, the Soviet forces had their act together and were pushing towards the Finnish capital of Helsinki. To avoid a disaster, Finland asked for peace negotiations. The resulting Moscow Peace Treaty adopted in March 1940 allowed Finland to keep its independence, but forced it to cede some territory to the Soviets, including some economically valuable lands that were rich in natural resources.

This was not the end of the story, however. In 1941, Hitler was scheming to betray Stalin and launch an invasion of the Soviet Union. However, since the Soviet Union was just such a large country with a massive military, Hitler knew he needed allies. He also wanted to justify the invasion in his regime’s propaganda as a pan-European “crusade” against Communism, not just a plot to gain Germany more territory (though it was certainly that, too). So, he approached Finland and basically said, “You want in on this?”

Now, think of this from Finland’s point of view. Hitler and Stalin were both absolute monsters, but Hitler wasn’t an immediate threat, while Stalin had already invaded their country. Not only that, but many Finns were angry at losing some of their land to the Soviet Union and wanted to reclaim it. Finland agreed, and joined forces with the Nazis against the USSR.

Adolf Hitler meets with Finnish commander Carl Mannerheim and president Risto Ryti.

About half a million Finnish troops participated in the war, waging a series of campaigns in the northeastern part of Russia, reclaiming their lost territory and attempting to capture the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk.

It should be noted, though, that Finland never fully committed to the Axis cause. They never declared war on the United States, United Kingdom, or any other Allied power, only the USSR. They never signed the Tripartite Pact, the treaty between Germany, Italy, and Japan that had formalized the Axis alliance. Most notably, Finland took in Jewish refugees from Europe, and many Finnish Jews fought in Finland’s army.

So, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Finland was quick to jump ship from its alliance with the Nazis when the war turned against them. In 1944, with the Axis forces falling back on all fronts, Finland reached out to Stalin and again agreed to peace terms. Finland was again forced to accept the territorial losses they had suffered the first time around, and this time was forced to make war reparations payments to the Soviet Union. Most notably, Finland was given a deadline of September 14, 1944 to expel all German troops on Finnish soil.

Of course, the Germans were not going to just pack up their bags and leave. German forces resisted their former ally’s demand to go home, and as a result Finnish and German troops clashed for several months, fighting a number of battles before the last German troops left in April, just days before the final German surrender.

Finland was the only country fighting alongside the Axis powers to be a democracy, and the only country on the European mainland to maintain its democratic government except for Sweden and Switzerland, both of which were neutral in the war. This made peace negotiations after the war a bit awkward; the Soviets wanted to treat them no differently than Germany, Italy, or Japan, but the Americans and British saw the value in preserving a western democracy that lay along the border with a Communist regime that was soon to be their Cold War enemy. In the end, the Allies went easy on Finland. The country was forced to limit the size of its military, and allow the Soviets to maintain a naval base on their soil. They were forced to recognize the civil rights of ethnic and religious minority groups, something Finland’s constitution already protected. They were forced to put several of their wartime leaders on trial for war crimes, but Finland was allowed to conduct the trail themselves, in their own courts, under their own laws.

With Finland firmly in the “neutral” camp of the Cold War, even the Soviets relented, voluntarily reducing the debt Finland had to pay and giving the country its naval base back. In 1955, Finland officially joined the United Nations, welcomed into the postwar world as an equal among the nations of the world.

Of course, this is just one of many bizarre and fascinating stories from the smaller countries that fought in World War II. Let me know if you would like for me to cover more stories like these in future blog posts!

Cat Flag’s Southwest Tour

 

I just got back from another trip – this one to northern Arizona. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I did go to the Grand Canyon about this time two years ago. And, yes, I had to visit it again, just to make sure it was still as awesome, inspiring, and beautiful as I remembered.

Yup, still amazing!

However, this time I took far more time to see far more of the sites in the Grand Canyon State. I spent a week touring various notable locations in the side roads off of the I-40 that I had never previously explored. Arizona is the sixth-largest U.S. state, after all, and I wanted to learn as much about it firsthand as I could.

The first thing that I learned was how truly grateful I was for Willis Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning. It was quite hot for almost the entire trip, usually with temperatures in the 80’s, and one day that hovered around 100 degrees. (For those who use Celsius, that’s 26 to 38 degrees.) I had to wonder how people survived in such hot, desolate conditions with little to no water before modern conveniences made life in such a place bearable.

Yet, people have lived in Arizona for millennia. One of the places I visited was Wupatki, the medieval ruins of an ancient Indian town that flourished between 1100 and 1300 AD.

I was thrilled to see such an ancient and historic place up close. The National Park Service has put in a walking path that lets visitors walk right up to the ruins, and I couldn’t help but feel awe at being able to reach out and touch something with such a deep history.

Of course, the descendants of the people who settled at Wupatki are still around, the Hopi Indians who live a few miles to the north. Indeed, they still come to visit the site to remember their history, and according to the information at the nearby visitor center, they tell an Atlantis-like tale of how it fell due to its people forgetting their sacred deities and rituals.

I also drove through the Hopi and Navajo tribal lands during this trip, touring their respective reservations. I very briefly passed through Oraibi, the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the United States, estimated to be about as old as Wupatki! Oraibi is a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village built near the edge of a cliff. I noticed that it featured a number of very old buildings with newer, more modern wings added on, and I thought that was a clever way to preserve the history while still making the ancient homes habitable. Sorry, I have no pictures of the town, as photography is not allowed there.

In contrast, the Navajo Nation capital at Window Rock was almost indistinguishable from any suburban neighborhood anywhere in America, with a supermarket, a Chinese food restaurant, well-maintained roads, government offices, a McDonald’s, and even a zoo! I say almost indistinguishable because, of course, it had fantastic and impressive rock formations just sort of sticking up in the middle of town:

This rock formation was right next to the zoo

This is the sacred “Window Rock” for which the city is named, still used for important Navajo rituals

The Navajo Zoo was actually a fascinating concept: a zoo that only hosts animals that are native to northern Arizona. Many of the animals in its care were injured or sick animals that were rescued and are recuperating until they can be released.

Just next door to the zoo is the Navajo Nation Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving and teaching the history and heritage of the Navajo people. Appropriately enough, it features an extensive exhibit dedicated to Chief Manuelito, a Navajo war leader that led the resistance against the attempted expulsion of the Navajo people from their land in the 19th century, and later became one of the most important advocates for Navajo children being given a modern education. The museum also will soon feature the actual treaty that the United States signed with the Navajo in 1868 that allowed them to return home. Sadly, I arrived a few weeks too early to see it – the exhibit was under construction when I visited.

Another thing I noticed about the Navajo Nation was that it featured a number of memorials and references to the WWII-era Navajo Code Talkers, volunteers who fought in the Pacific Theater and sent vital military communications in their native Navajo language to avoid any English-speaking Japanese soldiers or spies who might be listening in from being able to understand them. This beautiful memorial statue was the largest one I saw:

The Navajo and Hopi lands also include a large part of the famous Painted Desert, so-called because it includes amazing colorful geological formations, such as this one:

I mean, it’s blue and purple! I didn’t know they made rocks in those colors!

That one was actually taken at the nearby Petrified Forest National Park. This park is filled with fossilized trees such as this one, which give it its name:

Millions of years ago, Arizona was not a desert but a tropical swamp near the equator, and it is positively full of fossils, which is why many of the roadside stops have giant dinosaur statues. Trouble is, with all of the sand blowing in the hot, dry, high-altitude air, many of these statues look like they could use a little TLC.

I can’t go on, captain…

The other common feature of these roadside stops that was a bit infuriating was that many of them had tipis. You know, the traditional home of the Plains Indians? The indigenous peoples of Arizona did not use tipis! Here, this is a picture of a hogan, the actual traditional home of the Navajo people:

By the way, that hogan was part of a really cool site that I visited: the Hubbell Trading Post. This is a store founded in 1878 to trade goods between the Navajo and Arizona settlers, and it is still in operation today, selling traditional Indian jewelry and blankets, books, and even some ordinary groceries and household goods, just like in the old days!

I have to wonder about those first pioneer settlers that moved into Arizona. How did they handle the heat in those layers of 19th-century clothing they wore? How did they make sure they had provisions for the journey, like water and food? How did they react to the way the landscape would change at the drop of a hat, from dry scrubland to piney woods with just a slight change in elevation or water availability? How did they respond when they saw the Grand Canyon for the first time? I’m just imagining some family on a wagon riding along through the pines and suddenly…

“Welp… I guess we’re not getting around this, folks.”

The Grand Canyon is far from the only awe-inspiring natural phenomenon in northern Arizona. One of my favorites is the Meteor Crater, a massive meteorite impact from 50,000 years ago that is the best-preserved such crater on Earth. It is an absolutely amazing sight:

However, it is not easy to get to. It is several miles down a country road, far from the highway, with absolutely nothing but empty land around it. If it weren’t for the signs assuring you it was up ahead, you might be tempted to think you made a wrong turn!

Interestingly, the Meteor Crater is NOT a national park, but is private property. I did notice a difference between this private business’s visitor center and the national park visitor centers I frequently stopped in on these trips. It was larger, better air-conditioned, slightly more well-maintained, and a bit more considerate of human creature comforts than the visitor centers built by our federal government. It had a theater showing a 10-minute film on the history of the crater, and it also had a Subway for customers to eat at. It was an interesting contrast to me, and allowed me to reflect a bit on how the government and private businesses have different priorities when designing the buildings they use. Admittedly, I kind of liked Meteor Crater’s visitor center a bit better.

Now, almost all of the travelling I did was based around what one could easily reach by turning off the I-40 freeway. This road was built in the late 1950s and much of it functionally replaced, or in many cases even destroyed, the historic Route 66 highway. Everywhere I went there were shops offering T-shirts, magnets, baseball caps, and other novelties that read “Route 66” on them. However, an even older mode of transportation was also constantly present: the railroad. Many of the towns in northern Arizona were originally railroad towns and were built to meet the needs of these massive machines transporting people and goods to and from California. To this day, railroads run parallel to the freeways and I was constantly seeing trains run by as I traveled.

Yet the romantic connection with Route 66 and the truckers who drove on it were also ever-present in the gift shops I visited, making it all the more sad that many roadside stops had clearly gone out of business and were sitting abandoned on the side of the road. It was a sad and stark reminder of the Great Recession and its continuing impact on America to this day.

Still, one small town is fighting back. Just off the highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a community called Winslow that was briefly mentioned in a throwaway line in the song “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. Well, the town has milked that tiny claim to fame for all its worth, building an entire monument to the song in the heart of their tiny downtown:

It’s called the Standin’ On The Corner Park. Yes, really.

I found the whole novelty of such a bizarre monument quite appealing, and I think that’s what the town is going for. When I got there, about a half-dozen people were taking selfies by the statues; it took a while for me to be able to get a shot of just the monument itself and not the crowd. Meanwhile, all of the neighboring gift shops were playing the Eagles’ discography on loop. I couldn’t help but smile as I wondered if the cashiers ever got sick of hearing those same songs over and over all the time. Still, good for Winslow for finding a way to become a destination people might want to visit.

This road trip was a wonderful journey that I learned quite a lot from. Arizona is a fascinating state with stark natural beauty accompanied by scorching temperatures, a fascinating past, and a present that is full of surprises that will renew your optimism. I am glad that I went, and if you haven’t done so, I would encourage you on your next road trip to go off the beaten path upon occasion and see what you will find. You just might be surprised.

Infinite Darkness

Ever since Marvel Studios first proved that comic books, with all of their convoluted and wacky storylines, could be successfully translated onto the big screen with 2012’s The Avengers, they have been teasing and building up to an even bolder experiment: turning the “event comic” into a movie.

For those who don’t know what an “event comic” is, every few years the two major comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, will publish a limited-run special series telling a story that involves nearly all of the comic book characters in their fictional universe. Usually these will involve all of them having to team up to fight some sort of ultimate threat, or in some cases, it will involve the characters all fighting each other for some reason. These are usually marketed as “changing the Marvel/DC universe FOREVER!!!!*” 

*”…by which we mean until we undo it and revert everything back to the status quo except for the one or two changes that fans actually enjoyed a year or so from now.”

Event comics are the penultimate expression of comic books’ soap opera-like character, involving a deep continuity built up from years and even decades of stories about dozens of characters that we have grown to love all being juggled and balanced by the writers as they craft a tale of epic struggle. It’s a real challenge to pull off, with so many plates spinning in the air to keep track of. The best event comics are beloved by comic book fans, while others are made fun of as being among the worst comics in history.

I’m happy to say, Avengers: Infinity War manages to pull it off. The film is directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, in their third outing co-directing for Marvel (they previously had directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War), and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It not only captures the epic scale of the best event comics, it successfully juggles the vast cast of characters that Marvel has built up over the years. No one character overpowers all the others; the script carefully balances each of them to give each of them room to breathe. It also is paced VERY well. Even though we are jumping from one end of the universe to the other as we follow our heroes, it is really easy to follow what is going on and I never felt lost. The plot is not rushed, but instead each scene is given just enough time to really settle in before we are whisked away again.

Also, can I just mention how amazing the visuals are on this film? Fantastical scenes from across space appear absolutely breathtaking and even the more mundane shots set on Earth are beautifully framed. It was a very smart move hiring Trent Opaloch (Elysium) as director of photography, that man knows his stuff. All of the actors brought their A-game for this one, and Chris Hemsworth in particular turns in what is undeniably his best work playing Thor thus far. Also, the film includes an excellent cameo by Peter Dinklage.

I can’t deny that this is the best-made film Marvel Studios has turned out yet. And I won’t be seeing it again anytime soon.

Okay, here we go…

I now know why the most recent Marvel releases, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, were more comedic and campy in tone than most of the other Marvel films. It was for balance.

Avengers: Infinity War is by far the darkest movie Marvel has ever made. Yes, darker than Captain America: Civil War, which looks like a humorous romp by comparison. Darker, indeed, than the recent DC movies that have become quite infamous among superhero fans for being dark films.

Infinity War goes into some really messed-up territory, and I ended up feeling physically ill at the end. It goes into abuse, torture, the dangers of power, and extremism. I really struggled with how to write this without spoilers, as I always find it annoying when film critics include spoilers in their reviews, even if they warn their audience ahead of time. Still, it is almost impossible to talk about this movie without talking about the ending.

Suffice it to say, it is not a good ending for our beloved heroes. I think I’ll just leave it at that.

If you are thinking, as I had, that you want to have a fun afternoon out and watch the latest Marvel film to enjoy some fun action with men in suits while eating popcorn, be warned. That is not what you are going to get with Infinity War.

In a way, part of me applauds Marvel for just being willing to go there. As much as we think of Marvel as a “brand” now, a franchise known for quality movies with comic book characters, it often gets forgotten that a large part of why Marvel is so successful is that it does take risks. This was not something I saw coming, nor, if the reactions of the rest of the patrons in the theater with me were any indication, did anyone else expect this.

Still. The one thing Marvel has always counted on, nay, depended on, to get people to keep coming back to their movies is the promise of fun. This film basically flips that table over.

Will I watch another Marvel movie in the future? Absolutely. But not this one.

The History of U.S. State flags

There are fifty states in the United States of America, and today, each and every one of them has its own state flag. However, that wasn’t always the case. Recently, I’ve had state flags on my mind, and since I have covered the topic a few times before, and I am Cat Flag, after all, I thought I’d talk about the history of U.S. state flags.

In the early days of this country, the individual states generally didn’t have any state flags. It was assumed that the only flag Americans needed was the good old Stars and Stripes.

I mean, I can absolutely understand where they were coming from!

Actually, flags in general weren’t considered as important in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as they are today. Mostly they were used by the government and military. However, when the Civil War broke out in 1861, more and more ordinary American civilians in the north began flying the national flag as a symbol of their support for the Union cause.

The modern conception of American nationalism was born in the Civil War, as Abraham Lincoln and his supporters among both the Republican and Democratic parties came together to form the National Union Party and pledged to defeat the Confederacy and abolish slavery. The national flag became a symbol that Americans from all walks of life would rally around, and after the war it became THE definitive symbol of patriotism in America.

However, in the years after the Civil War ended, something new appeared on the scene that would create the climate for state flags to start to emerge: the World’s Fair.

As the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear (pun intended), the nations of Europe wanted to showcase their latest inventions so they could brag to their neighbors about just how technologically advanced they were. In 1844, France held a 60-day public exposition of their latest and greatest advancements, with nearly 4,000 companies participating in the event. Not to be outdone, the British held their own Great Exhibition in 1851.

The United States wanted in on this action, and began holding its own World’s Fairs. In 1876, Philadelphia hosted an exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founding. This was followed in 1893 by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 in Buffalo, New York, the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

This was the fairgrounds for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for perspective.

Back then, these World’s Fairs were a BIG DEAL – millions of people would attend these events, and companies with innovations they wanted to showcase really wanted to be there to get the word out on their latest products. At the same time, each state also wanted to encourage investment in their own state’s industry and economy, so they needed something to help them stand out.

Enter the state flag – a convenient symbol that could be used to represent a state and its “brand” as it were. During this time, the Daughters of the American Revolution got involved as well, often running contests to help select state flag designs.

Unfortunately, as the states started adopting their own state flags, one by one, a pattern started to emerge:

That’s right. Most states just slapped their official state seal on a banner and called it a day. Maybe they would throw in the state name or the date of statehood to vary it up a bit. I mean, I know designing something can be hard, but can’t you put just a LITTLE effort into it?

There are 26 states that fall into this unimpressive pattern: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. That’s the MAJORITY. As a lover of flags, this makes me so sad at all the wasted potential.

I mean, look, even if we are to assume the state seal must be on the flag (which I charge is not at all the case), you can be creative with that. Look at Wyoming’s flag:

See? It has the seal, but did something interesting with it and created an iconic design that symbolizes the state quite nicely. The red represents the blood of the Native Americans and pioneers, the white stands for purity, and the blue represents the sky and the mountains. The buffalo, of course, is the ultimate symbol of the American West, and there is even an explanation for why the seal is on the buffalo: it is supposed to represent how livestock is usually branded to indicate the ownership of the animals.

Then again, you have the counter-example of Oregon, which decided to go with the worst of both worlds. It not only features another boring design with the seal and the state name written in big, bold letters:

It also is the only state flag to be double-sided, with a different design on the reverse:

Do you know how hard and expensive it is to sew a flag with two sides? You basically have to make two flags and stitch them together!

While the majority of state flags have some seal-based design, a few states took a different inspiration for their own state flags.

Three states – Texas, California, and Hawaii – have state flags that actually date from before they were part of the United States.

The flag of Texas was adopted in 1839 by the Republic of Texas, which was an independent country at the time. It was widely used as an unofficial symbol of the state of Texas until 1933, when a law was passed making it the official state flag. The red represents bravery, and the white, purity. In addition, a plain white-and-red flag was used in the 1826 Fredonian Rebellion against Mexican rule, a sort of prequel to the Texas Revolution. The independent Republic of Texas added a blue stripe on the hoist side to represent loyalty and the iconic “Lone Star” for the unity of all Texans.

Hawaii’s flag was designed by King Kamehameha the Great, founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The story goes that the king received a gift of a British flag from an explorer as a token of friendship, and he liked flying the flag from his palace. However, this upset American traders visiting the islands, so the king designed his own flag with elements of both the British and American designs to keep everyone happy. It has been used continuously by Hawaii ever since.

As for California’s flag, it was used in the Bear Flag Revolt by a group of American settlers in Sonoma, California, who learned that the United States was at war with Mexico and had invaded California. The rebels declared an independent “California Republic” that existed for three weeks before the U.S. Army arrived and the rebels joined the American forces as the California Battalion. In honor of these events, the flag was adopted as the official state flag in 1911.

New Mexico’s state flag sort of falls into this category as well. While the flag was designed in 1920 and adopted in 1925, the symbol it prominently features is ancient. The Zia Sun, as it is called, is sacred to the people of the Zia Pueblo, which has existed since at least the 16th century when they were encountered by Spanish explorers, if not earlier. Its four points represent the four compass directions, the four seasons, the four stages of life, and the four sacred duties of every Zia: being strong in body, clear in mind, pure in spirit, and devoted to helping others.

Some state flags are based on the flags used by military units based in the state. North Dakota’s flag was used by soldiers from the state that served in the Philippine-American War:

Then there’s the flag of South Carolina, whose roots date all the way back to the American Revolution:

The blue field with a crescent moon in the canton was used as the military flag of South Carolina’s troops in the War of Independence against the British, and was designed by their commander, William Moultrie. Moultrie is most famous for the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, where his troops held out against British cannon fire, in part because the cannonballs kept bouncing off the palmetto trees. Later, South Carolinians who fought in the Civil War added the palmetto to symbolize this victory.

Similarly, Alabama’s flag is based on the flag of the 60th Alabama Regiment in the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

Speaking of the Confederates, we have already discussed the story of the flag of Georgia and all the controversy surrounding it, but there is another flag with a blatant reference to the Confederacy in its design:

That is the flag of Mississippi. The state adopted it in 1894, and as you can imagine, it has become rather controversial over the years. Several of the state’s universities refuse to fly the flag. However, in a 2001 referendum, 64% of the state’s voters voted to keep it, and it appears to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

I think I’ll close out with my personal favorite state flag, the flag of Arizona:

A large part of why I love Arizona’s flag is because it not only has a cool design, it was designed by a flag enthusiast like me!

In 1910, the National Guard was holding a rifle competition in Ohio for soldiers from across the country to compete. One of the participants from Arizona was Col. Charles Wilfred Harris, who saw that the teams from various states were using their own regimental flags to represent their states’ National Guards, and since Arizona was still just a territory at this time it had no flag of its own. So, Harris resolved to design one.

He placed a large copper star in the middle to represent the state’s copper mines. The bottom was colored blue to represent the United States, using the same blue as the Stars and Stripes, while the top was broken into thirteen rays of red and gold to simultaneously represent (1) the setting sun, symbolizing Arizona’s status as a Western state, (2) the state’s history as a Spanish colony, as red and gold are traditionally the national colors of Spain, and (3) the original 13 colonies that became the United States. The flag proved wildly popular, and was officially adopted in 1917.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, a brief look at the history of our great nation’s state flags. As well as my personal opinions about a few of them. If you enjoyed this subject, let me know and I may cover this topic again. There are so many states I’ve left out, and I’d like to talk about them, too!