Throughout history, flags have served as an excellent display of cultural and geographic identity. A flag tends to be viewed as a physical representation of the intangible idea of the nation. Every weekday children across the United States of America say The Pledge of Allegiance to Old Glory, and they could easily explain to you that the thirteen red and white stripes are for the thirteen original colonies, and that the fifty stars stand for the fifty current states in the union.
By the time they become adults, they have seen their state’s flag enough to tell you what it looks like, and probably have a general idea of what it stands for. City flags seem to be the most underappreciated flags in the United States of America, usually only appearing in front of government buildings, and occasionally on stamps, and it is time that they get the appreciation they deserve, and their meanings known.
New York, New York
The flag of New York City represents the home of over eight million people, most of whom will never know its meaning. A vertical tricolor based on the colors of the historical flag of the Netherlands was used, a country which first laid the groundwork for what they called New Amsterdam, with the seal of New York City in the center.
The man on the viewer’s right (known as “sinister” in heraldry terms) side of the seal is a member of the Lenape, a tribe of Algonquian native Americans who originally inhabited the area. The man on the viewer’s left side (known as the “dexter” side) is a colonist holding a navigation device known as a plummet.
In a show of unity, the two men hold a shield adorned with beavers and barrels, representing the fur trade and other commerce that helped build the largest city in the United States of America, arranged around a windmill that hearkens back again to the city’s Dutch heritage. A bald eagle has overlooked the two men since the American revolution, when, as the national animal, it replaced the crown that originally sat in its place. The banner reading Sigillum Civitatis Novi Eboraci simply translates from Latin to “the seal of New York.”
The flag of the city of Milwaukee is one of the busiest city flags in the entire United States of America, partly because it is an amalgam of multiple submissions the city took in the 1950s after the city’s leaders became aware that it was one of only four cities with a population of over a half a million to not have its own flag.
There is so much going on in this flag that most people do not even know where to start; it even has another flag inside its flag: The civil war battle flag of the Milwaukee regiment sits in the bottom left gap of a giant gear representing the city’s industrial roots. A native American in the upper left of the gear is there as nod to the city’s native heritage. An icon in the top right of the gear is historically tied to the Milwaukee City Library.
Sitting in front of the gear is a stylized version of the city’s skyline, including the Milwaukee county stadium. A large barley stalk, showing the city’s beer brewing past, flanks the flag’s dexter side, opposite the year that the towns of Juneautown, Kilbourntown, and Walker’s Point combined to form the city of Milwaukee. In the foreground a ship sails on Lake Michigan, as trade ships have since the city’s founding.
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles, California’s flag is not only an homage to the city’s history, but also to the land and resources that the city has been built on. The background of the flag is made up of three jagged vertical stripes: green to represent the olive trees, gold for the orange groves, and red to represent the vineyards. In the center of the flag sits the city’s seal.
The seal of Los Angeles consists of a shield surrounded by the same crops the background city’s flag represents: grapes, oranges, and olives. The shield is a quadrisection design; that is to say that its design is split both vertically and horizontally, and is symbolic of the different cultures and countries that turned the city of angels into what it is today.
The top left of the shield is in likeness of the shield on the Great Seal of the United States of America, except for thirteen stars added to the blue banner. The bottom left has an eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its mouth, acting as a stylized version of the coat of arms of Mexico.
The bottom left is representative of the coat of arms of Spain, via a tower to symbolize the Kingdom of Castile and a lion representing the Kingdom of León, which combined in the year 1230 and later combined with the Kingdom of Aragon to create the country of Spain. These Spaniards then settled the area of California as part of their colony of New Spain.
The final quadrant of the shield is home to the state flag of California, which is a brown bear on a white background, with a red line across the bottom and a red star in the upper left. The words “The City of California” and the date of 1781 rest in the banner encircling the rest of the seal.
Baltimore Maryland’s flag is a very unique design, with the background being a black and yellow pattern reminiscent of the coat of arms of the Calvert family. The same design is also present on the flag of Maryland’s state flag. Baron George Calvert was the first Baron of Baltimore; his son Cecil went on to settle what is now Maryland, and later, Cecil’s brother Leonard went on to become the first provincial mayor of Maryland under the English crown. It also includes a black shield with a gold border and a picture of the Baltimore Battle Monument.
The flag of the City of Chicago consists of two light blue horizontal stripes on a white background, with four red stars. The top blue stripe represents Lake Michigan and the northern branch of the Chicago river; the bottom blue stripe represents the south branch of the Chicago river and the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal.
The three white bars formed by the blue lines dividing the background are representation of the north, west, and south sides of the city. Each of the four red stars are there to pay homage to important places and events in the history of the City. Each star has six points, representing transportation, labor, commerce, finance, population, and salubriousness.
The first star added to the flag was added for Fort Dearborn, which was integral to the growth and early settlement of the land. The second is there to symbolizes the Great Chicago fire. The third star is for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The final red star is there as a physical representation of 1993 Chicago World’s Fair, also commonly referred to as the Century of Progress Expo.
San Diego, California
The flag of San Diego, California holds most of its meaning in the city’s seal, which rests in the center of the flag. The Seal of San Diego is wrapped with the three phrases: “The City of San Diego,” “State of California,” and “Semper Vigilans,” which is Latin for “Ever Vigilant.”
Two towers representing the Pillars of Hercules appear in the seal as a tribute to the city’s history within the Spanish Empire. At the top of the seal is a bell tower, signifying the Spanish missionaries that once scattered through the Spanish colony of New Spain, which San Diego was a part of.
A shield sits at the center of the seal between the Pillars of Hercules and below the bell tower. On the top half of the shield is a ship, indicative of the exploration and later colonization of the area by the Spanish. The bottom of the shield bears two winged wheels flanking an orange tree as symbols of the city’s manufacturing and agricultural roots, respectively.
The background of a white stripe through the center, with an equal-sized red stripe to the flag viewer’s left and a gold stripe to the flag viewer’s right, is an adaptation of the colors used in the flag flown by the Spanish explorers who founded what would later be known as the City of San Diego.
Washington, District of Columbia
Voted in 2004 the best-designed city flag in the United States of America by vexillologists, or those who study flags, the Flag of the Capital of the Nation’s capital is simple mostly because of its historic origins. The flag is, in all actuality, just a reworking of the coat of arms of the nation’s first president, George Washington, after whom the city is named.
It features two vertical red bars bisecting a white background, with three red stars across the top of the flag. It is said that the same design of the stars and stripes inspired the stars and stripes pattern of what would eventually be known as the flag of the United States of America. The heraldic past of this flag means it can also be found across the Atlantic Ocean in architecture and other works inspired by or relating to Washington’s ancestors and/or their coat of arms.
Much like the flag of New York City, the flag of Philadelphia is one big homage to the city’s rich and lengthy history. The face of the flag is referred to as a bicolor vertical triband; in other words, it has three stripes alternating between two colors. The triband consists of two blue panels on either side of a yellow panel, which contains the city’s seal. These colors are in tribute to the colors of the flag of the Swedish people who were the original Europeans to settle the area, and they set the foundation for the city that is now known as the birthplace of America.
The city seal in the middle, however, is again where most of the flag’s meaning lies. The woman on the dexter side of the seal represents peace, as shown by her crown made of olive leaves, an old Greek symbol for peace.
She holds a scroll of parchment in her right hand that was originally a grid representing the old street plan of the city. The woman on the right is a surrogate for Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest, to signify the agricultural abundance of the area. She holds a cornucopia to further drive this point home.
The women hold a shield between them, with a hand plough across the top of it as another representation of agriculture, and a ship below to represent the city’s success in the area of commercial trade, especially that of the maritime, or naval based, traders.
The scales of justice sit atop the shield, signifying the city’s commitment to equality and fairness, mostly in the areas of crime and punishment. A banner with the motto “Philadelphia Maneto” translates from Greek to mean “Let brotherly love continue.” This is the same translation of brotherly love in the motto from where the city itself takes its name, “Philo,” meaning to love, and “adelphos,” being the Greek word for brother.
So, next time you are thinking of a way to express yourself or convey where you are from and what makes your area great, look toward your city’s flag to do the job for you. All too often we overlook the great job local founding fathers and mothers did in giving us symbols of where we call home.
We implore everybody to acquaint themselves with their city’s flag and its meaning, and, if your city does not have a flag, then design one. Maybe one day people will be reading about the meaning of the flag that you designed as a representation of where you live or lived. We also encourage anybody who finds their city’s flag representative of their beliefs, or who has pride in their city, to fly that flag high and bring it to the attention of others who might also share your sense of local pride.