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 blocks, and you will shortly be named to Mr. Blackwell’s worst-dressed list. Alabama’s stark red X on a white square has all the charm of a traffic sign.
Many flags lack even ugly originality. Nearly half of them are dreary variations on a single theme: blue rectangles with what looks like scrambled eggs in the middle. Several, in a halfhearted attempt to distinguish themselves, resort to including their state’s name. But the image is supposed to speak for itself; putting “Kansas” on the state flag is akin to having the God of the Sistine Chapel flash an ID. (Try to imagine “The United States of America” printed across the Stars and Stripes.) Since states fly their flags almost exclusively within their borders, the practice of including names suggests that, say, Oregon is home to hordes of dullards who have to be reminded just what that banner is every time they see it.
Not every state flag is so bad. California’s lumbering grizzly bear evokes the state’s natural wonders as well as its western history. There is ample charm in South Carolina’s spare, eccentric design: a crescent moon floating over a palmetto tree on a navy-blue field. Washington, whose flag is the only one featuring a recognizable portrait of a person (George Washington, of course), is also the only green one. Alaska, like many states, employs stars, but these call to mind actual stars, because they’re arrayed in the pattern of the Big Dipper. Arizona’s aggressively colorful flag gets points for taking risks and answers a football trivia question: What are those red, blue, and yellow sunburst designs on the jerseys of the Arizona Cardinals? Perhaps the most enchanting flag is, appropriately, from the Land of Enchantment: New Mexico’s bright yellow rectangle with a red Pueblo sun symbol in the center is distinctive and unforgettable.
Texas went through a lengthy process of experimentation with its own emblem. As Charles E. Gilbert, Jr., notes in his 1964 book, Flags of Texas, several flags were used by rebellious Texans during the war for independence. Among those supposedly flying over the Alamo when it fell was one duplicating the red, white, and green Mexican flag—but with “1824”in the center to signify support for the Mexican constitution of 1824. But Texans soon wanted something that set them apart from their former rulers. One feature that appeared in several flags was a single five-pointed star. It was incorporated, for instance, into a flag Sarah Dodson designed for a company of Harrisburg, Kentucky, volunteers that included her husband. (The flag had vertical stripes of blue, white, and red, with the star in the blue; turn the white and red stripes ninety degrees and you have Texas’ current flag.) According to legend, the first official flag of the Republic of Texas was blue with a white star in the middle, encircled by the word “Texas.” Its successor kept the star but colored it gold and dropped