Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The best U.S. state flags

Yesterday I bemoaned the lack of quality in U.S. state flags. I was quickly reprimanded by readers who pointed out the exceptions to the trend. And it's true, despite over half the state flags in the country fitting the "state seal + blank background" formula, there are a few truly great designs.

In my personal experience, states I've been to with good flags also tend to be the states that more prominently display their flags everywhere. It's no coincidence: a good state flag creates more state pride.

The most iconic state flag is of course Texas. Many Texans prefer the Lone Star Flag over the U.S. flag. It's a simple design. Need I say more?

The second most famous state flag is probably California. This one breaks a few of the basic rules of good flag design. Normally, having any sort of lettering is in poor taste. But it works on this flag. I think it's because it doesn't just say "CALIFORNIA." Instead, it says "CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC," which sounds sufficiently epic.
This flag is also a bit too detailed. Have you ever noticed that in different images of the California flag, the bear has slightly different facial expressions? It's because the bear is too complex, with its realistic features and shading.
But somehow this all adds up to a classic state flag. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ohio is famous for having the only non-rectangular state flag. In fact, it's one of only two non-rectangular jurisdictional flags in the entire world--the other being the national flag of Nepal.
The distinctive pennant shape, which is both a burgee and a guidon (fun words!) is based on Civil War cavalry flags. The white/red circle represents both an "O" for Ohio and its nickname as the Buckeye State.

My personal favorite is the Maryland flag--growing up right next to Maryland, I've got a sentimental connection to it. It's the only U.S. state flag based on English heraldry, and it's instantly recognizable. The quartered colors are unique and the striping pattern is great; I particularly like the diagonal stripe formed by counterchanging the gold and black vertical stripes.

South Carolina turns the popular "state seal on boring navy background" concept on its head. It takes the palmetto tree state symbol and simplifies it so it's optimized for flag form.
The crescent in the canton (the top left part of the flag) is a bit more mysterious. It dates back to the 1760s, when Stamp Act opponents used a blue flag with white crescents on it. Some people theorize that it's actually not a moon; in fact, it could be a gorget. The crescent has been used in South Carolina imagery even longer than the palmetto tree.

Even if you'd never seen this flag before, you could probably guess what part of the country it's from. The New Mexico flag bleeds Southwestern. The colors connect the state to its Spanish roots, and the Zia sun symbol in the middle connects it to its Native American roots. This one contends with Maryland for my favorite state flag.

Another flag that evokes its state perfectly. The Big Dipper and the North Star. Alaska's state flag is one in which the blank navy blue background is justified: it forms a night sky for the stars.

Despite the whole country's history as a British colony, Hawaii is the only state whose flag incorporates the Union Jack. The eight stripes evoke the U.S. flag, but they represent the eight major islands of Hawaii.
Some Hawaiians, particularly Native Hawaiians, resent the use of this flag. To them it represents both British and American colonialism. Many instead use the Kanaka Maoli flag, or "True People" flag. This flag probably better represents Hawaii, from both a design and color standpoint. I love the current Hawaiian flag, but the Kanaka Maoli flag is equally great.

The Colorado state flag is simple but effective. A "C" for Colorado, and the colors of the U.S. flag with the addition of gold, the metal traditionally mined in the state.

I often group the Colorado flag, New Mexico flag, and Arizona flag together. It's great that the flags alone can help us mentally put together the geography of the country. In this flag, the red and gold stripes represent both the state's Spanish roots and a sunset.

Tennessee has a super underrated flag. The three stars represent the three regions of the state, and I highly enjoy the blue stripe on the fly (the edge farthest away from the flagpole). The longer- and narrower-than-average proportions, along with the unusual star placement and rare fly stripe, make the flag stand out while still consisting entirely of very traditional elements: standard American colors, stars, and a stripe.

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