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!