Let’s Fly a Better Flag for Philadelphia

 

Henry C. McCook | Source : The Shield: official publication of the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity, Volume 27 via Wikipedia Commons

Henry C. McCook | Source : Wikipedia Commons

Here’s the short story of how Philadelphia got the flag we have today: there was a guy – a smart, nice guy – the Reverend Doctor Henry C. McCook. In October 1894, he had an idea – that Philadelphia should have a city flag. So, he wrote a letter to the Mayor and included his idea for a civic flag – the city seal on golden yellow and azure blue. I’m sure he was a well-connected man and did some lobbying, and sure enough, by March of next year, City Council passed an ordinance, and presto – Philadelphia had a flag. That design has served as the city flag for the intervening 118 years, but now is the time to ask if we can do better.

No one can argue with McCook’s motives for suggesting a flag. In his letter to the mayor, he wrote that, “the display and constant use of a Philadelphia Civic Flag would act towards the strengthening of civic pride, precisely as similar use of the National Flag tends to foster a spirit of national loyalty.”

Today's Philadelphia Flag, as designed by McCook in 1894.

Today’s Philadelphia Flag, as designed by McCook in 1894.

He’s exactly right. Flying a flag is among the easiest ways to identify yourself as part of a group. It’s a way of saying, “I am a part of this thing – this city, this country. I fly this flag to recognize the history and the values of this place and to tell others that I am of it.” A flag can be an incredibly powerful object, and McCook’s was an incredibly powerful idea.

Since his motives are unimpeachable, let’s embrace them. However, his graphic design sense leaves him open to some criticism. McCook was a prominent lecturer and author, noted entomologist, a Presbyterian minister, and the Vice President of the Academy of Natural Sciences, but he wasn’t necessarily a great designer. The flag is a little… lazy. It’s what they call in vexillology (the study of flags) “a seal on a bed sheet.” A seal is something that is meant for letters and citations, a complex bit of heraldry that proclaims the officialdom of a document – anyone who studies seals (sigillographers) could tell you that.

Seal of Philadelphia

Philadelphia has a great seal. The figures of Peace and Plenty stand astride a shield bearing a plow and ship, holding symbols of hope and prosperity, crowned by the scales of Justice and entwined in a banner with the City’s motto Philadelphia Maneto. It’s packed with lots of imagery and symbolism, and a close reading of it reveals a lot about the values of the city and its history. It’s best done up close, in the seal’s home court – on a letter, in your hands. It’s unfair to try to make the seal do double duty as the flag. On a fluttering flag, you can’t see a seal closely enough to decipher its elements, and it does nothing to make the flag an easily discernible icon.

If you want to see why seals on flags is a bad bet, take a look at a selection of some of the twenty state flags (including Pennsylvania’s) that consist of the state seal on a blue field. Their visual similarity renders these flags so useless as identifiable symbols that a few states have taken the ultimate flag cop-out and just written their names on the flags.

Seals on Blue Fields

So let the seal be the seal, and let’s have a flag that’s a great flag. A flag is a symbol, a signal. The flag should be something that is distinctly Philadelphian, with symbolism that tells a story of our history and the values that will shape our future.

Now is the time for Philadelphia to reinvent its city flag. Not because because the existing flag isn’t sufficient, but because it fails to capture the public imagination, fails a flag design, and fails to be the universally recognized and popular icon for the city that it ought to be. Some say that the flag is fine as is, and that it’s failure to take hold among Philadelphians as a symbol of our city is simply a failure of marketing. As DesignPhiladelphia kicks off this week, the power of great design to excite and unite is evident.

Photo courtesy Chicagoflagtattoos.com

Photo courtesy Chicagoflagtattoos.com

The best way to get a flag befitting of our great city is a competition. Public competitions produced the iconic flags of Chicago, (which has an entire website dedicated to tattoos depicting its flag) Denver, and Washington, D.C. – the three flags that topped the North American Vexillogical Society’s 2004 ranking of flag designs.

The competition should be open to all, Philadelphian and outsider alike – you never know where the best ideas can come from – Chicago’s was designed by a poet, D.C.’s by a professional graphic designer, and Denver’s by a high-schooler.

Over lunch this week, I pitched this competition idea to Brenda Exon and Robert Stoller, two of the founders of the Partners For Civic Pride, a non-profit who’s mission is to promote the current city flag as a vehicle to instill civic pride in all Philadelphians. Needless to say, no one is more committed to the flag than Brenda Exon, the ever-enthusiastic Philly Pride Lady™. For Brenda, the story of the flag’s history and the symbolism of the seal is inviolate. She has done more than anyone else to tell the story of the flag and is in fact probably the first person that introduced me to the flag. It’s tough to sit across the table from her and propose its demise.

To Exon and Stoller, the flag simply has a marketing problem. If more people knew about the flag and its story, they would embrace it. Most people don’t even know that the city has an official flag. When PFCP introduces the flag at the annual Philly Flag Day, or in classrooms around the city, people get excited about it.

To me, the flag has a design problem. The flags that are successes as design objects don’t need a marketing campaign. They get into people’s minds. They start showing up on t-shirts and bags, people start flying them on their porches. They become the icon of the city. People might not know all of their flag’s history and symbolism, but it doesn’t matter – all they need to know is that the flag means they belong to their place. The best ones are mutable and open to remixing, becoming a touchstone for people to relate themselves to both the city and a culture within it. These are the qualities that make for a successful flag, not just what we have on hand and a well-planned PR push.

The most embraced flags are open to adaptation by citizens - for instance Chicago's cycling community.

The most embraced flags are open to adaptation by citizens – for instance Chicago’s cycling community.

The people at PFCP has done wonders advancing the cause of the flag. They’ve built partnerships with the schools and philanthropists. Philebrities like Tony Luke and Will Smith’s father sit on their Board. They ought to lever these resources and prestige to hold a competition, if only to build conversation and awareness about the current flag. As for the original flag, set aside the weight of history for a moment and, consider this: how would it have fared as an emblem of the city had it faced any competition at all? McCook’s design was merely the first, not necessarily the best.

The fact is that the competition to rethink the flag is already underway. There’s an informal redesign competition happening right now on Reddit. The industrial design and branding firm Bresslergroup is sponsoring a Reflag Project as part of this week’s DesignPhiladelphia festival. Flags from their designers are flying at NextFab and the Trestle Inn right now. Part of their Reflag Project invites people to Tweet photos of themselves with one of the Bresslergroup’s flags using #reflag to be entered to win two tickets to The Rail Park fundraiser on October 18.

Of course, I’ve got my own ideas for what would make for a great Philly flag. At tonight’s Fast Forward Philly Event at the Center for Architecture, I’ll take a few minutes to share my own entry to the ongoing competition to redesign the flag. I hope that it lives up to the high ideals of a civic flag that Reverend Doctor McCook illuminated in 1894.

May the best flag win.

About the author

Michael Burlando is a designer, builder, photographer, and lover of all things Philadelphia. While earning his Master of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Michael restored an 1870's Victorian rowhouse. After graduation he spent two years at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings, and Merill before returning to Philadelphia with his wife in 2010. He now manages construction projects for Columbus Construction, lives in Graduate Hospital, runs the revived Philly Skinny, and blogs at brlndoblog.blogspot.com.



11 Comments


  1. I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is who gets to design it and how many damned Liberty Bells and pretzels it will have…

    We could always go back to Penn’s arms that would make a good piece of vexilography.

  2. I like the simplicity of some of the proposals on Reddit and elsewhere. Here’s an example of what to avoid: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Wells,_Maine.png

  3. I’m liking this idea. I do like the blue and yellow background. We should have more streetlight banners around city hall with it.

    I do agree that simple is better. How about an eagle with a silhouette resembling the liberty bell. More ridiculous would be a brawn W.Penn striking a sword into the liberty bell with cheese wiz flying out the sides .

  4. IIRC the gold and azure were intended to be a link to the Swedish settlement of Philadelphia.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with the current, historical flag. It’s simple, and the complaints about the “seal on a bedsheet” are overblown.

    But if people really can’t stand to see something that isn’t modern, let’s just simplify it even more. Three bands — blue, yellow, blue — with no other symbolism. The idea of the city between two rivers is enough.

    For the love of Penn, no Liberty Bells or any other corny, overplayed symbology.

  6. Let’s ask the GEICO gecko what he thinks it should be. Seriously, why change it? It is what it is. Most flags ARE boring if you think about it — I bet the same guy came up with Italy and Ireland’s.

  7. I like the version of the philly flag without the emblem. Just the quaker colors (i believe). its flown several places across the city including the art museum.

    I would be apposed to something new though but the colors should stay for historic sake.

    • I agree with @zach and others. No need for a full redesign. That said, use fo the seal on the flown flag is a bit silly. Simply remove the seal.

  8. I don’t believe the historical flag should be redesigned. The seal and what it represents is what this city is about-Hope, Peace, and Prosperity…Letting Brotherly Love Continue. People know this is the city of brotherly love; hence, what our city flag stands for. I’m sure once the children learn about the flag through PFCP and what the seal represents they are inspired. Remove this and you may remove opportunities for growth and inspiration in the children of our city. Leave it alone!!!!

    • Jessica, there is a big difference between a useful symbol and an opportunity for teaching values. Flags are symbols and ought to be as clear and simple as possible – they are meant to identify people, places or things from a great distance, hence the strength of the large flag in front of the art museum.

      Putting little emblems, whether well designed or not, is never a good idea on a flag – in this case they are intended as a seal. Let our teachers and parents and citizens teach the important values that represent the aspirations of William Penn as exemplified by his beloved city of Philadelphia.

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