How Ohio Chose the Swallowtail Flag

Over the years, the Ohio swallowtail flag continues to remain unique amongst U.S. flags — especially considering it is the only non-rectangular state flag.

For the first century of statehood, Ohio existed without an official state flag. Despite a handful of proposals, no flag designs were deemed adequate. Finally, in 1901, John Eisenmann concocted designs as commissioned by the Pan-American Exposition. Shortly thereafter, the swallowtail flag began gracing houses throughout Ohio.

Ultimately, the origins of John Eisenmann’s designs provide some insight into Ohio’s legacy. The swallowtail flag, like all other state flags, continues to embody the evolving identity of its home state: Ohio.

 Flag of Ohio Flutters Before the State House

A Cleveland architect, tasked with designing an exhibition hall, makes an even greater contribution

When the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, approached Cleveland architect John Eisenmann to build an exhibition hall for his home state of Ohio, he jumped at the chance. In the end, he would make an even greater contribution.

As John Eisenmann set to work on the building in 1901, the desire for a state flag had been percolating in Ohio for decades. Since the 1850s, many states had begun adopting their own official state flags, and Ohioans wanted the same.

To decorate the exhibition hall, John Eisenmann set about designing and developing a flag that would grace each corner of the building. At the time, the wool flags John Eisenmann made were intended to represent the Pan-American Exposition Commission, rather than the state.

State of Ohio flagHowever, when Governor George Nash visited the exposition, Eisenmann presented him with his early version of the swallowtail flag — setting in motion a chain of events that would birth the Ohio state flag.

Ohioans remain slow to adopt the flag

Honored by Eisenmann’s gesture, Governor George Nash began flying the swallowtail flag from his residence.

However, it wasn’t until the following year that State Representative William McKinnon introduced the bill that would make Eisenmann’s design the official state flag. On May 9th, 1902, the swallowtail flag became the 20th state flag in the U.S.

At the time, Eisenmann had filed a patent on his flag design. However, to further the statewide proliferation of the swallowtail flag, he assigned the patent to the State of Ohio.

Because the flag has a rather unorthodox shape, Ohioans were initially slow to adopt the flag. The gradual adoption of the flag was further hindered by the dominant view at the time that displaying solely the national flag best represented American patriotism. This view would begin to disappear in the following decades.

The beauty of the swallowtail flag wins over the state of Ohio

While Ohioans were momentarily reluctant to use the design, the symbolism present in the flag has led to its widespread adoption throughout the state. Today, not only do public state buildings display the flag, but many residences and businesses do as well.

Three vibrant red stripes separated by two white stripes represent the roads overlaying the many waterways that weave throughout the hilly Ohio landscape. Those Ohio hills and valleys are represented by the blue triangle perched at the heart of the flag, the backbone of the state.

At the center of the blue triangle, a large “O” sits, symbolizing both the state’s name and its designation as the Buckeye state. Lastly, 17 white stars circle the large “O,” albeit in two different groupings. The first group contains 13 stars, signifying the original states of the U.S.

At the far tip of the blue triangle, four stars sit. These four stars represent the next group of states to join the U.S., of which Ohio was the 17th — the final star at the heart of the flag.

The widespread adoption of the swallowtail flag spawns a few derivations

Ohio flagToday, the Ohio state flag routinely enters the national spotlight when it is used by The Ohio State University marching band at football games.

As the swallowtail flag continued to sweep across the state, even a few derivations have been spawned. The Cincinnati Bengals flag and the Columbus Blue Jackets logo are based off Eisenmann’s original swallowtail design.

In 2002, the 100th anniversary of the Ohio state flag was celebrated. In honor of the state Eisenmann’s swallowtail design, a brief salute to the state flag was adopted by the Ohio General Assembly following the pledge of allegiance. The recitation was said as follows: “I salute the flag of the state of Ohio and pledge to the Buckeye State respect and loyalty.”

Final thoughts

In an era with no small degree of global turmoil, many continue to fly national, state and municipal flags as displays of nationalism. Many flags boast unique origin stories similar to that of Ohio’s swallowtail state flag.

Ultimately, the swallowtail flag hints at both the history and landscape of Ohio. In the hundred years following its creation, John Eisenmann’s original design continues to make Ohioans proud.

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