MY TEN-YEAR-OLD SON, Keith, is a bright child who brings home good grades from a fine school in suburban Chicago, but when I asked him over dinner one evening if he could draw a picture of the Illinois state flag, he hesitated, looked embarrassed, and finally said, “I don’t think so.” After an awkward moment, his face brightened as he remembered where I grew up. “But I can draw the Texas flag,” he announced proudly.
You may conclude that they teach odd stuff at Keith’s school. Not really. It’s just that he has spent nearly all his life in Illinois, where displays of the state flag are so rare that they might as well be officially banned, but he’s also taken weeklong trips each year to visit his grandparents in Austin, which have profusely exposed him to the flag of Texas. Seeking further confirmation of my suspicions, I asked my older sister, who has lived in Chicago for 24 years, to describe the Illinois flag. “It’s light blue and white,” she replied, “with red stars in the middle.” A perfect description … of the Chicago city flag. When I pointed out the Illinois flag, she couldn’t remember ever having seen it before. Even my wife, a native of Illinois, couldn’t conjure up its image in her mind.
When it comes to flags, it’s Texas, not Illinois, that is unique. In most places, the locals take about as much pride in the state flag as they do in the state bird. They may not even know what the flag looks like, and they don’t really care. In Texas, by contrast, you see it everywhere—not only on flagpoles, but also on T-shirts, caps, license plates, and bumper stickers. Nowhere else, I’ll venture, can you buy running shorts patterned after your state flag.
Flags first came into use for purposes of warfare: to identify one’s forces, to inspire the troops, even to signal wind direction to assist the aim of archers. Mainly, they were intended to provide quick identification in less-than-perfect viewing conditions, since confusion on the battlefield can be fatal. “Wording therefore tends to be excluded,” says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “and the simpler patterns are favoured.”
If you’ve ever seen what flies over most state capitols, you’ll understand why hardly anyone pays attention. Illinois’ flag is simply mediocre—a white banner with an eagle in the center surrounded by a jumble of images and words that are impossible to make out beyond a distance of twenty feet; about the best that can be said is that it would suffice if you were faring poorly in a battle and needed to surrender. Hawaii’s, which consists of red, white, and blue horizontal stripes with a Union Jack in the upper left corner, looks as though it accidentally wandered away from the British Empire. Ohio uses a five-sided pennant that would be perfectly at home in a sailboat regatta. So would Rhode Island’s, a white square with an anchor. Drape yourself in the Maryland flag, an eye-torturing riot consisting of two yellow-and-black squares arrayed against a pair of red-and-white