386. State Flag Revisions: Illinois (+ Half of Kentucky)
Dec 28, 2012 at 11:08PM

This turned into a two-part Abe Lincoln State Flag Special.

Well it didn’t start out that way, it started out with me researching the history of Illinois’ state flag and it turned into something a little bigger. Let’s start with Illinois and go from there.

Illinois, more than any flag we’ve met so far, represents all that is wrong with most of our state flags. I mean this not just in simple design terms, but also in the process the design went through to become the state’s official banner. Here are a few of the warning signs for Illinois (named after a major Native American tribe from the area, for the record):

1. The state flag design started out as a free-for-all competition in 1912. Strike numero uno.
2. The contest would pay a whopping sum of $25—only $574 in today’s currency. Strike numero dos. How did that came to be? Ella Park Lawrence was elected State Regent of the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (a group directly and indirectly responsible for many state flags in the early 1900's). On a trip to DC soon thereafter, she realized that in Memorial Continental Hall’s state flag display, Illinois was a glaring omission. Thus the inspiration for the design contest.
3. The process involved a committee, a group of four judges who evaluated 35 designs in the following years of 1913-14. If this were baseball, they would have struck out, but since it’s flag design there are many more strikes to come.
4. Lucy Derwent of the Rockford Chapter of (you guessed it) The Daughters of the American Revolution, submitted the winning design, if you can call it that. It featured the state seal (strike four, a swing and a miss) on a white field. Miss Derwent, went all out on this one didn’t she? A state seal on a color field? Where have we heard this story before? Time for an intermission, check out the results of her labor.

Illinois State Flag:

Ella Park with Her, um Design:

Illinois State Seal History

Because Miss Park-Lawrence didn’t really design anything, let’s look at the state seal design history. Nothing really to see here in the top two squares  from 1818, you have your basic design based on the Great Seal of the United States. An eagle carrying arrows and an olive branch, combined with a constellation of stars representing the other states and Illinois joining them, added to a shield of red, white and blue. It’s changed a bit over the years, the second seal was introduced in 1825 (bottom left), with a reversed eagle, a constellation condensed down to three stars and fewer arrows in the eagle’s talons. I guess someone thought six or seven was too aggressive? A motto was added to a ribbon, State Sovereignty, National Union. More on that in a second, the last addition was the date the territory became a state, August 26, 1818. 

Illinois State Seal Examples:

In 1868 a new seal was introduced (bottom right) that used a totally different eagle, added a few boulders and a distant horizon of a sunrise. The interesting thing about this design is that because of the Civil War, the state motto was now seen as controversial, with national unity being more important than state sovereignty. The state legislature probably didn’t agree so they refused to change the motto. The new design slyly twisted the scroll in such a way that National Unity literally appears above the words state sovereignty. That’s kind of a cool little detail, don’t you think? Pretty sneaky, guys, pretty sneaky. Who doesn’t like getting one past a bunch of politicians?

5. Back to baseball. The fifth strike for this flag was thrown during the Vietnam War, when Chief Petty Officer Bruce McDaniel grew tired of his state flag being one of the few whose identity was constantly questioned as they hung around the mess hall. McDaniel requested that the flag design be altered with the addition of the state’s name being written across the bottom, in blue uppercase of course. McDaniel wasn’t wrong per se, but the solution was short-sighted. It would have been far better to create a unique flag, than to literally tell people from which state the flag flies. So maybe this isn’t a strike, but a foul tip. He did solve the immediate problem, I suppose.

6. The sixth strike is a doozy and a shame, something that goes down as one of the biggest vexillological gaffes in history. (Yep!) One of the flag design submissions entered during the first contest back in 1912 was entered by author/newspaperman Wallace Rice. His design featured horizontal white-blue-white stripes with twenty blue stars and one large white star. (Illinois was the 21st state to enter the union.) This design eventually became, posthumously, the Centennial flag one hundred years later, somewhat reducing the sting of not being selected. Interestingly enough, and one must think Rice a flag aficionado at this point, he also successfully submitted a design that would become the official flag for Chicago in 1917, one of the best munincipal flags out there. I envision Rice, after losing out to a state seal on a white field, complaining about the client’s taste. His non-selection is a clear sixth strike and we’ve now cleared 2/3 of an inning with this flag.

Wallace Rice's Posthumous Centennial Illinois Flag:

Rice's 1917 Chicago City Flag Design:

(It should be noted that I’m not a big fan of Rice’s Illinois state submission, as we have too many stars and stripes focused flags that needlessly stick too closely to the ‘How to Design a Flag’ standards. Instead we need to create symbols that communicate something about the state’s story, first, then judge it on its traditional flag merits second.

Any way, that’s how the Illinois state flag came to be. At some point during the research I decided that I wanted to focus on President Lincoln as a graphic for the flag since the state uses Land of Lincoln on its license plates. He’s one of three presidents to take office while being a resident of Illinois. It’s Honest Abe, Ulysses S. Grant, and President Obama. (Not bad company.) There was only one President that was born in Illinois—though not a resident—when he took office, that being Ronald Reagan. There ya go. But if I stick with Lincoln as the main focus of my Illinois flag, what then is to become of Kentucky, the state in which Lincoln was born? Couldn't they stake a more certain claim on Linoln? And surely he can’t be the symbol for two state flags could he?

Well, let’s see. He preserved the union of this country during its most trying period. His foreign policy prevented other nations from intervening in the Civil War and from potentially changing the outcome. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, something other Presidents should have done long before, then Lincoln followed that up with the 13th Amendment which formally ended slavery in the US. He signed bills into law that chartered the first transcontinental railroad, encouraged settlement west of the Mississippi with the Homestead Act, and with the Morrill Act signed into law grants that would establish no less than 69 colleges (!). If that weren't enough he signed into law the National Banking Act, which pretty much established the United States National Banking System and our national currency, which led to the Federal Reserve System. If you can accomplish all of this in only 1.25 terms, then you can be the subject of two state flags in my book. If Obama and the current congress could do this much in the coming months, maybe I'll find a place for them. Until then, Lincoln gets his two well-deserved flag kudos.

Check out the bottom of this post for the new Illinois State Flag.

Go See Lincoln, the Movie:

One more point before we move to the story behind Kentucky’s flag. If you haven’t ventured out to see Lincoln, the movie, I would suggest that you wait for it on DVD. Not because I didn’t like it, on the contrary I loved it, but it’s a movie that unfolds within the subtle shades of dialogue, in the shadows of small gestures, and in the slight characteristics of the actors. It’s one of those movies that are better enjoyed by being up close and personal with it, with the ability to go back and forth a bit to catch a little detail you might have otherwise missed in the theater. Not much actually happens in the film, which is the point for the most part. I also loved how Spielberg handled the assassination. It was as powerful as it was classy. (One could argue it’s how you should handle all the shooting tragedies of late. Watch it and see what I mean.) And make sure you don't accidentally rent or download the other Lincoln movie, you know, the vampire one.

Okay, onto more important matters.

To understand the craziness that is the Kentucky state flag, one must first understand the lunacy of the Kentucky state seal. The original seal was commissioned back in 1792 by the Kentucky General Assembly and was described as such, “Two friends embracing, with the name of the state over their heads and around about the following motto: United we stand, divided we fall.” Seems easy enough, but by now you know how loose and fancy-free states run with their flags, Kentucky particularly and humorously so. According to John Brown, its first Senator, the original seal was to depict two friends, both in hunter’s clothers, in mid-handshake, with the left hands resting on the other’s shoulder. The silversmith who was paid to design the seal in 1793 depicted both men in swallowtail coats and in a full embrace. This seal was destroyed in the 1814 fire that spread in the state capitol.

Because of the lack of specifics regarding these “friends” and their greeting, many different versions of the state seal have showed up over the years. The friends are shown in everything from suits to Roman togas. Their greeting becomes anything from the modern handshake to a hug. It’s Kentucky lore that some die-makers took creative liberty with the poses to demonstrate their penchant for Kentucky bourbon and being drunk enough to get actually get along. When painted in the House of Representatives in the mid 1850’s, the artist showed one man in a buckskin boots and the other in formal wear, in front of several columns. One version has the  left hand of one friend shaking the right hand of the other, making it appear like they are dancing. In 1954, Ernie Giancola, a Louisville native, created a more natural looking handshake which is used in the current day seal. In 1962, the General Assembly rushed into the situation after almost 200 years, and mandated that one friend be a pioneer, the other a gentleman in a swallowtail coat.

The Crazy Dancing Kentucky State Seal:

It’s a common misconception that the pioneer represents Daniel Boone, and the gentleman, Henry Clay, the state’s most visible politician, but this is not true. The friends represent all manner of country and urban folks. You can point this out next time you’re traveling through Frankfurt and your know-it-all friend tells you otherwise. You’ll show him a thing or two.

That’s that for the Kentucky state seal.  (Much of this came from Wiki, more so than usual, so check out this link and this link.)

The flag is merely the state seal, set on a blue, but as we just read it wasn’t until 1962 that it became useful or accurate for a flag. Interestingly enough, in 1920 a committee from Camp Zachary decided they didn’t like the flag and offered up several suggestions for its improvement. In typical state flag history form, those revisions were lost along their journey to the Governor. Then, and you can’t make this up, in 1927 the Kentucky Historical Society commissioned art teacher, Jesse Cox Burgess to design a standard from which the flags could be made. Three flags were produced using oil and ink, but only 2 of those flags made it back to Frankfurt, as one was lost during use in a ceremony in Chicago

Two final tidbits. 1. It was law between 1962 and 1998 that the flagpole used to hoist the state flag must have a Kentucky Cardinal at its head. In ’98, that law was changed merely to be a recommendation.  2. The flag’s proportion is much longer than other state flags, but we’ll be having none of that mess.

*Note: Kentucky is technically a commonwealth much like my former homes of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Add to that mix, Massachusetts to complete the full list of Commonwealths in the US. What’s the difference? The short answer is nothing. Constitutionally speaking they are the same thing. The long, nerding-out answer? PA, VA and MA were some of the most revolutionary states during the American Revolution, and they wanted to signify a difference in their intended government. Commonwealth referenced the Commonwealth Period in British history when there were no Kings but instead England was ruled by Parliament.

There's not much else to know about the Kentucky state flag, other than to see it. If you closed your eyes and imagined the average US state flag, well, this is probably what you envisioned.

The Current Kentucky State Flag:

So, what do we do with Lincoln and Kentucky? Let's hit Illinois this time around, and we'll update this post with Kentucky's as soon as we get it done. (It wont' be long, I promise.)

For Illinois I want to create something honoring the state as the Land of Lincoln and I started using the Lincoln Memorial designed by Daniel French as a reference. Illinois is where Lincoln resided when he began to make his mark. Even though the monument resides in DC, it’s the meaning and likeness that we can associate with the state. I tried it, but then didn't like it much. It happens.

Study/References of the Lincoln Memorial in DC:

New Illinois State Flag Process Sketch:

(I didn't mean to make the creepy headless Lincoln, of course.) I liked the side-view of the monument best, but it just wasn't what I wanted in the end. So, I took another less realistic approach, using his likeness and signature as the main elements and giving it all a civil-war worn effect. I'm pretty happy with how this one turned out.

The New Illinois State Flag:

I think this is a good addition to the flag redesigns we've tackled so far. I'll whip up Kentucky's as an update below, as soon as I have it, even though it's not in alphabetical order. Check back for that soon. Thanks for reading, friends.

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