Hoist Up Your Azure and Maize


Photo: Bradley Maule, PhillySkyline.com

Philadelphia’s city flag, designed by Reverend Doctor Henry C. McCook in 1895, turns 117 years old today. At noon, the Partners for Civic Pride, led by Philly Flag Lady Brenda Exon, will fete the occasion on the plaza of the Municipal Services Building. The Flag Day celebration is put on by Partners for Civic Pride, an organization which seems to exist solely for the promotion of Philadelphia’s flag. I’ll be there, and I hope you will too.

I’ve been thinking about city flags a lot lately, since I heard this story on the excellent design podcast 99% Invisible a month ago. Like 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars, I wasn’t really aware that cities had flags before I too moved to Chicago, where the simple, iconic city flag flies not just in front of civic buildings, but on homes, backpacks, cops’ shoulders: pretty much everywhere. Chicago’s flag is widely identified with the city itself and lives among the citizenry, ever present and constant. I bet that half the residents of Chicago own a flag or some other object with the flag on it. I myself have a St. Patrick’s day t-shirt which replaces the four red stars with four green shamrocks.

I do know what Philadelphia’s flag looks like, due largely to the affection for it held by Brad Maule, who as proprietor of the late, great phillyskyline.com, marked the occasion of Philadelphia’s Flag Day.

Now, Philly’s flag, with its distinctive azure blue and golden yellow (or “maize”), evoking the city’s Swedish roots, and the municipal coat-of-arms, emblem of William Penn’s ideals of peace and plenty, is just fine. But the North American Vexillological Association–the folks who study flags–only ranked our flag #31 (Chicago’s is second) in a national survey, based on their “five basic principals of flag design.”

Might we do better with a more captivating design? Chicago’s flag is the result of an open city-wide competition that solicited over a thousand entries from Chicagoans of all walks of life–a rather fun way to create an emblem for a place seeking its identity in the ever-changing world. A Philly flag competition is an idea I’ve been toying with since I heard the Invisible 99% podcast. Stay tuned…you might get a chance to reimagine the Philly flag.

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.


  1. Changing our flag because some self-taught “experts” think it’s inferior is hardly a good move–let’s just embrace it as it is. It’s a fantastic flag, bright and hopeful.

    Chicago’s and D.C.’s flags are so well-known mostly because they have made it part of their identity.

  2. It is not “golden yellow” or “maize” but gold – the classic heraldic color from the Swedish arms. The weak part of our flag is the cost of arms itself which represents a degraded period in heraldry. Rather than let some vast popular committee make such decisions they should be left to competent heraldic scholars/vexilographers. IMHO

  3. It’s fine as is; distinctive enough as flags go.

    The city just needs to be quicker to realize opportunities to utilize and promote it.

  4. Philly’s flag is fine. People only recognize Chicago’s flag because they present it more. If we did more to make the flag visible, more people would know it too.

  5. If you want to see ugly, check out LA’s flag: http://cityclerk.lacity.org/cps/pdf/cityflag.pdf

  6. I really feel that the lack of visibility of the city flag is a problem of design and not one of marketing. When there are fundamental weaknesses in the product, even the best promotion won’t make people love it. More, better marketing was the prescription for New Coke and the Ford Edsel.

    As the commenters above pointed out, the current flag is just fine. But it’s not great. It lacks the simplicity, symbolism, and iconography that makes the flags of other cities so deeply integrated with their civic identity. I think Philadelphia can do better.

  7. The sad truth is that our flag is really more attractive than those in a lot of other northeast cities. Perhaps it COULD be modernized…But there is history to it, so radically redesigning it to make it more bland and modern seems counterproductive. This year seems to be an occasion where City Hall is promoting the flag in a big way, so maybe it WILL become more prominent as a result.

    I also like the fact that the Latin motto can be a bit of a double entendre…

  8. Just out of curiosity, what other city flags can you think of off the top of your head that make more sense for the place they represent? Other than Chicago. Which flags do you think do a better job of this?

  9. No, because if we redesigned it, it would end up with a $)*@#%! liberty bell or Ben Franklin’s head on it.

    Its a fine flag. If they want to change anything, simplify the heraldry.

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