Edit Desk: The power of a flag


Laney Delaney

Pennsylvania’s flag is bad.

I say this with the confidence of 1,000 art museum-goers, staring into an abstract painting of a single geometric shape and quietly declaring, pssh, I could do that.

While in my heart I know it to be true, my position bears its own opinion piece because I’ve encountered many a Pennsylvanian who has fervently objected to my line of thinking. So for once and for all, I’d like to fully detail what it is that makes a flag great, and what it is that makes Pennsylvania’s so lackluster.

Flags exist for one reason more than any other, and that’s to proudly establish identity and belonging. Given that, it’s only fitting that a flag be distinctive and unique. Pennsylvania’s flag falls short in that department.

Of the United States’ 50 state flags, 23 of them fall under the “blue bed sheet plus state seal” umbrella. While the seals themselves vary and the shades of blue do as well, it’s difficult to be distinct and unique in a grouping of such size and similarity. At a quick glance, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan’s flags in particular aren’t easily distinguishable from one another.

Casting aside the fact that all 23 of these flags share an all too similar design, the bed sheet and seal model itself is counterintuitive to a flag’s very purpose. A real flag enthusiast, properly called a vexillologist, might be able to assign state flags to their locales with ease, after having studied the individual elements of their seals. From a distance, however, that keen eye for detail becomes useless. When looking at a flag from afar as it billows through the wind, as a typical flag observer so often will, fine details blur together, and the key elements that separate Nebraska from New Hampshire disappear.

Now, with that all being said, there’s an elephant in the room to address: does this even matter?

States are hardly carrying their flags off to war these days, and Nebraska and New Hampshire really aren’t close enough in proximity that one would conceivably have to worry about differentiating one flag from the other. So, in our modern society, what purpose does a flag actually serve?

The element that puts a flag over the top, and the one that every modern flag should strive to achieve, is cultural significance. All of the aforementioned design elements of a flag contribute to the likelihood that a state’s residents might use their flag as a symbol of identity. Pride in one’s home and pride in one’s flag go hand in hand. California and Texas, the two states with arguably the most culturally iconic flags, are also both known for having residents who absolutely adore their home.

A truly effective flag, that transcends its purpose to become a broader piece of culture, must not only be meaningful, but recognizable from any distance, and of course, aesthetically pleasing or interesting. I must qualify “pleasing” with “interesting” here, mostly because of Maryland’s flag. While it’s an eyesore to some, it has become a cultural staple to the state and a source of contention for flag enthusiasts everywhere.

I understand where Pennsylvanians are coming from in their defense of their flag. My home commonwealth Virginia’s flag isn’t much better, being just another blue bed sheet with a seal, though there is something about that visual of a woman wielding a spear standing over a tyrant’s lifeless corpse that gets my blood pumping. Sic semper tyrannis!

Perhaps it speaks to something greater that despite the sad state of affairs that is the Pennsylvania flag, Pennsylvanians are willing to rally behind it and defend it to the end. That being said, I can only imagine what kind of momentum they could get going if their flag were just a bit more magnificent.

Laney Delaney, ’20, is an associate multimedia editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected] 

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1 Comment

  1. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    You could have at least shown or described the flag for non-resident readers so here is a description: The Pennsylvania flag features a blue field with the state’s coat of arms in the center. The coat of arms includes a shield crested by an American bald eagle, flanked by horses and adorned with various symbols representing the state’s special features. Beneath the coat of arms is an olive branch and a cornstalk symbolizing peace and prosperity. The state’s motto appears below the design and reads, “Virtue, Liberty and Independence”. The special features include a sailing ship for commerce and a plow for agriculture. Had it been designed about 100 years later it might have had a coal breaker of railroad locomotive on it. So it’s not exciting, “Virtue, Liberty and Independence” I can more than live with that; prosperity is another thought I would promote. I think you would have better luck trying to convince Coloradans replace the big C with the yellow dot for Colorado with the big C with a seven pointy lobed leaf for Cannabis.

    Check out the recent history of the Georgia state flag for a flag that needed to be changed, and not for being considered uncool. It was loved and hated at the same time by various constituencies.

    The ubiquitous blue in state flags may be partially due to the blue of the American Revolutionary War uniforms as opposed to the red of the British “redcoats”.

    Why fight over Pennsylvania when we can probably agree on Canada. To open up another can of worms how about national anthems. Canada again is a winner.

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