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365. State Flag Revisions: California. Part 1.

Boy, the research article alone for this state flag could very well go into a bound book the thickness of your average family bible should I not edit severely. I quickly realized there's a lot more to this westernmost state's flag history than a long-time east-coaster might initially think. I'll try to summarize the best that I can, in the hopes that what we learn can eventually lead us to a solid new design. I have to admit that I'm a little nervous about this one. Not sure why exactly. Perhaps because I have called California home since returning from Dubai in March of 2010? I don't know, but here goes nothing, home state. Glad to be here. Hope I can do you proud. 

California's history saw a lot of flags flying around. Going all the way back to the 1540s, you had the Spanish Empire Banner ruling over the territory. There was a brief period where the Flag of England flew over Drake's Bay for a mere 37 days in 1579. In the 1800s the Russian-American company had a charter and flew their own flag, which was different than the flag of Russia that also flew over California around the same time. In the early 1800s the familiar baby blue of Argentina's flag could be seen, as well as the familiar red, white and green of the Mexican Empire and the Mexican Republic. Something called the Fremont Flag few for just a brief period over the winter in 1845—46. This flag was the creation of a topographical engineer and was loosely based on the US flag mixed with a few Army regimental designs. And of course, the United States flag few over California in 1846 and at other times throughout history.

But the California flag, as we now know it, got its start during something called the Bear Flag Revolt. (The revolt was named after the flag.) Americans who proclaimed California’s independence over Mexico raised a crudely made flag of brown cotton, red flannel and roughly painted symbols over the town of Sonoma on June 14, 1846. The words on the flag simply said, California Republic. (Fairly weak at the time, the Mexican forces didn't put up much of a fight.) This flag is often referred to as the Todd Flag because it was designed by William L. Todd, a first cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln whom you may better know as Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. C'mon, isn't history great? 

The 1836 Lone Star Flag of California:

The red star in the upper corner of the Bear Flag was actually made with blackberry juice and was suppose to reference the long star symbol of Texas, a state facing similar struggles with independence, as well as another earlier flag in California's fight against Mexico, this one down in Monterey in 1836. (It was called the Lone Star Flag of California, above.) The bear, a symbol of strength and resistance was made in the same way, but really looked more like a humble cow or other livestock. According to, "Native Californians looking up at it were heard to say ‘Coche[sic],’ the common name among them for pig or shoat." Not quite the symbol of strength, but hey, what can you do with unbleached cotton and blackberry juice design critic hotshot? The original flag was unfortunately lost in the great 1906 earthquake and resulting fire in San Francisco. Darn it — I was hoping I could go see it.

The First Bear Flag of California:

I'm afraid that the kerning doesn't improve much over the years.

This flag was kind of the viral cat-themed YouTube video of its day, quickly gaining in popularity and reaching meme status. Everyone was doing their own version. Take a look at just a few of them via

By 1911, however, California adopted a version of the original Bear Flag to represent its statehood, at the behest of The Native Sons of the Golden West, a group much like the Daughters of the Confederacy mentioned in the previous Arkansas post. It did take all the way until 1953 for the government to actually put some graphic standards in place for a more consistent flag, putting an end to the crazy versioning we still see today on brands without any guidelines. Back then, the State Purchasing Department was growing frustrated with the wide variation between flags made by different manufacturers.  The 1911 law never showed any reference photos of the bear or flag for that matter, and was written using only 100 words. And a picture is worth 1,000. Ooops. A mild oversight.

The Bear Flag as it looked in 1899:

1900-1930 California Bear Flag via Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-2031:

So what brand standards did they bring to this flag in 1953? Well first of all they decided on a model. A real-live (well stuffed) model bear, a California Grizzly named Monarch. Monarch was captured in 1889 by newspaper reporter Allen Kelley, (I didn't realize reporters were bear hunters, but hey it was 1889!) Kelly caught the bear and was paid in advance by none other than William Randolph Hearst. The name Monarch comes from a Hearst owned daily, the San Francisco Examiner nicknamed (probably by Hearst) "The Monarch of the Daillies". *Note: I did not expect to have so many celebrity cameos in so many of these flag articles. Anyway, the bear was subsequently moved to Woodwards Gardens in San Francisco, and then to the zoo at Golden Gate Park. The bear died in 1911—the same year the flag was originally adopted—and was then preserved at the Academy of Sciences. So, it makes sense that a visage of Monarch has proudly strutted on every official California State Flag ever since. Sadly, California Grizzlies became extinct in the wild sometime around the early 1900s too. So Monarch was truly one the last of his kind. 

Monarch still stands at The Academy of Sciences here in San Francisco.

The person in charge of the 1953 flag standards was an artist named Don Kelley, who called himself The Most Displayed but Least Known Artist. Kelley studied Monarch, then stuffed, as well as the illustrations of a German artist named Charles C. Nahl, an engraver and painter whose work you can, and I did, find in Hutchings Illustrated Magazine of California a series of books from 1856—1861. Check this out, the original bear etching that inspired the current flag. See Nahl's signature bottom left. Cool, am I wrong?

Charles C. Nahl's California Grizzly Etching:

So Kelley had his bear, and now had to set the proportions, colors and dimensions of the flag to settle this wild west situation with the flags. He decided on the cable colors for the flag, which you can see below along with the modern equivalents, and further down you can see the result of Kelley's work.

The sketch included in the 1953 Law:

So, now we have some order, but why is it still difficult to find the official Flag? There are still tons of versions out there, most with the bears and typography rendered quite differently. The bear issue, I get, at least for the 1950s. Now, we should be able to create an official vector Monarch, right? And unless my research abilities have proven me wrong, why on earth don't we have an official typeface to go along with the rest of the standards? Sure, the sketch will get us close, but this is long overdue. Maybe I'll use this article to sponsor a bill to remedy this. (That'll be a nice portfolio piece, for sure. Note to self.) The original law only mentioned condensed gothic letters. Check out the variations in the image below, which includes a flag provided by the official state library in the middle, one that most closely reflects the flags flying over the capital on top, and one you'll find listed as the official flag on everything from Wikipedia to other state agencies.

Some Variation Still Exists:

This is a branding problem folks. California has something like the eighth largest economy in the world; it should have some tighter brand standards for an icon that functions much like a logo. Even if we just did that, we'd go a long way in doing our jobs here. This link will give you an idea of the wide variety of flags out there. As best I can tell, this is the official California State Flag, or as close as we can find.

The Official(?) California State Flag: 


Let's discuss what works with the flag. Clearly the issues working against it are the loosely defined typography and even more loosely defined rendering of the bear and grass. The flag, even with these flaws, is one of the standouts in a sea of official seals on blue fields. The color palette borrows from the Mexican Empire, without feeling derivative. The bear is, or at least could be, a strong symbol of power and resistance, much like it was originally meant to be. It only needs some guidance really. The red bar, whether or not it stays, matches the star and together anchors the design. There are even rules for negative space built into the design, so it's not like this is a hot mess like Arkansas. (Sorry Arkansas folks.) Now, we could overhaul this and do some pretty cool Californian designs here, but I think we'd be better served fixing up what needs adjusting, and making this unique flag design stand a bit more proudly. 

Now, let's deal with the typography.

Again, the only mention about a particular typeface was pretty vague in the flag law, "condensed gothic letters." That just won't fly today. I'm not sure at this point, if I plan on keeping the letters on the flag or not, but I want to decide on an appropriate typeface to do the job, should I need it. I'd like to honor the process and effort put into the standards in the 1953 law, by selecting the typeface that should have been chosen then, thus correcting an oversight that should never have been. Let's look at a few options. When we do so, we can also correct the rather terrible kerning issues you probably have noticed by now.

An un-kerned type study based on the 1953 drawing using typefaces available in 1953: (Including Univers even though it didn't come until a few years later in 1957 or so.)

None of these typefaces are exact, as the original appears to have a more block-quality. And the R's leg terminal has a bit of a curve, which is actually the other characteristic that is tough to find. There is the typeface, CA Geheimagent (a coincidentally named type family by Stefan Claudius), but again it lacks the personality of the R. And Mark Simonson's Refrigerator Deluxe Bold is similar, but lacking some of the details we're looking for in our choice, and of course wasn't around in 1953.

Mark Simonson's Refrigerator Deluxe Bold

In an attempt to bring some clarity to the issue, I called over to Annin & Co, makers of flags in the United States since 1847. I was hoping they'd have something a bit more closely related to the original. Nope. More variety. In both bear, grass and typography. 

Annin & Company's California State Flag:

Pretty darn frustrating. So I head over to American Flagpole and Flag company to check out their product. Looks like their typeface is closer to the original. So I call them, but they don't answer their phone. Even the state legislature is in on the mess, when they reference the flag in a 2006 document, they feature the typeface with the rolling R terminal. Clearly at this point, we need to make some decisions and set some rules for the typeface. 

In part 2, we're going to standardize the current California State Flag. The type. The bear. The grass. Everything. This is something we could /should/may try to submit to the state for real. Then, we're going to take a stab at a new version of the design more in line with this project. Stay tuned, look for part 2 as early as tomorrow. 

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