Peterson: Illinois’ $25 flag could use an update

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 11:50 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 11:52 p.m. CDT

Illinois needs a new state flag.

Its central theme is the state seal on a field of white. The word “Illinois” was added about 45 years ago because no one knew it was Illinois’ flag. One state seal looks like another. “Illinois” wasn’t added to make the flag more beautiful but to make it identifiable. That’s how bad it is.

But Illinois is not alone with dreary state flags. More than half the states in the union fly their state seals, or worse yet, coats of arms on their flags. It’s a complete lack of imagination.

You should be able to distinguish one state from another by its flag. Old Glory is a hard act to follow, with its 13 red and white stripes and the 50 stars on a field of blue. It’s a beautiful flag – simple in design – but should another state be added, it’s just a matter of rearranging the stars. Old Glory represents the United States well.

But when states were tasked with coming up with flags, most of them fell back on their ugly and complicated state seals, which might looked fine painted on a piece of plywood and attached to a politician’s podium, but look indistinguishable when put on cloth and flown as a flag.

The predominant feature in the Illinois flag is the eagle with its wings spread and red ribbon in its beak with the words “National Union” and “State Sovereignty” emblazoned on them. It doesn’t help that the hardest word to spell and pronounce, sovereignty, is upside down. 

Flags shouldn’t have hard words on them. Flags shouldn’t have words on them at all. But Michigan takes the prize for words. They’re in Latin. Don’t ask about the moose and the elk standing on their hind legs, ready to fight as soon as the eagle flies away. By the way, the longest Latin phrase translates, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Pleasant peninsula? Blah. Sounds better in Latin.

From New Hampshire to Washington back across Nebraska to Florida, state flags are a mishmash of intricate seals. Flags shouldn’t be double ply so the words can be read on both sides. California almost had it with a bear and a star, but it had to add “California Republic” to ruin everything. The bear and star can stand on their own to represent California.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t winners out there. It can be done. Good flags can be designed, even if there are 50 states.

Alaska takes the prize for simplicity: The golden stars of the Big Dipper point to the North Star against a blue field. It captures the essence of our most northern state without having to resort to words.

New Mexico is next with a red circle in the center representing the sun, a sacred symbol of the Zia people who populated New Mexico. Four rays – four is a sacred number for the Zia – radiate from the sun in each of the four directions of the compass. The symbol is against a yellow field.

Ohio scores for originality and simplicity. Its flag is a swallowtail pennant. If you don’t know what that is, it is a flag that looks like an isosceles triangle with an equilateral triangle bite out of the end of it. The 17 stars in the field of blue at the base of the pennant represent Ohio being the 17th state. And the O in the blue field represents Ohio.

Tennessee’s flag is wonderful with a circle of three white stars against blue surrounded by a white circle of unity. It is in the center of a crimson field that ends on the right with vertical white and blue bars.

The best flag in the union belongs to Texas, with its large lone star in the center of a blue panel on the left. On the right, two broad horizontal stripes of white and red are positioned on the end of this elegant flag, which is the 1839 national flag of the Republic of Texas.

It galls me that Texas has hands down the best flag in the union, it being my least favorite state, beginning with its unofficial motto, “Don’t mess with Texas,” and ending with the lead it takes nationally in executing people.

That leaves us in Illinois lagging in last place with a whole bunch of other states that use unimaginative and hard-to-decipher variations on seals or coats of arms as their flags. Illinois should have picked up on the hint in 1969 when “Illinois” was added because too many people were saying, “Huh?”

A $25 prize was offered in 1915 for the best flag design, and 35 designs were submitted. The winner passed the Legislature, but the governor let the flag fly without his signature on the bill. He knew something wasn’t right, but he didn’t want the Daughters of the American Revolution pounding on his door at all hours.

It’s time to make it right.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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