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Documenting flags: Part 2

Last modified: 2013-08-03 by rob raeside
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The following material is from an unpublished work (The Naked Vexillologist, Phillip L. Nelson, © 2002, 2003) and is produced in an abridged version here. Where possible the original formatting and footnotes for the selected areas have been retained. Items marked with […] represent portions of the text not submitted to FOTW.

The Naked Vexillologist


As vexillology enters its third generation, it is important for us as practicing professionals, semi-professionals and dedicated amateurs to take the opportunity to pause and reflect upon the study of flags. Unlike many disciplines, there are no college degrees to be earned in vexillology, and few courses have ever been taught on vexillology. The discipline is, in many respects, one that crosses into the realm of other disciplines such as history, sociology, psychology, graphic design and political science among others. The development of modern vexillology in the 1960s has given rise to vexillological organizations in many countries on six continents. And yet, in its short life, vexillology has not produced any materials by which the future practitioners may be trained except by observation of the work product of current practitioners.

To understand the need for the development of vexillological standards, it is necessary to rehash the definition often used with the community of flag scholars: Vexillology is the scientific study of flags.

And we, as vexillologists must also be concerned with the fact that the discipline is either unknown to or misunderstood by the general public. As a discipline, it must also find respectability in the academic community beyond being a niche in any one discipline. But the failure of the academic community to consider vexillology beyond the boundaries of present academic disciplines is not uncommon. In a lecture on Quantum Cosmology, Dr. Steven W. Hawking notes:

Cosmology used to be considered a pseudo-science and the preserve of physicists who may have done useful work in their earlier years but who had gone mystic in their dotage. There are two reasons for this. The first was that there was an almost total absence of reliable observations. Indeed, until the 1920s about the only important cosmological observation was that the sky at night is dark. [However, in recent years] the range and quality of cosmological observations has improved enormously with the developments in technology.1

This paper is to postulate the need for a discipline of vexillological scholarship necessary to train the future vexillologists so they will not be believed to be mystic in their practice of the study of flags. The paper will not propose a model of vexillological scholarship, rather, at times, rhetorical questions may be raised that will hopefully challenge the vexillological community to a dialogue on the development of the materials and resources necessary to train our future vexillologists.


Theory and Practice


2. The Basic Building Blocks

Given the fact that the general public is generally ignorant of vexillological techniques and the existence of many vexillological organizations, it is not surprising that younger vexillologists may make mistakes in their work. As noted earlier in this paper, it is for future vexillologists that we need to create the tools necessary to build the discipline.

And this will not be easy. Some vexillologists believe that only certain facts are significant or more important than others; that we should focus on the history, or the psychology or the social aspects of a flag, or the facts and figures.

1. Dates. This is basic information and its inclusion should not surprise the most experienced vexillologist, nor the least experienced. However, we are not talking about selected dates that are considered the most significant by some vexillologists, but also dates that are not so obvious or which may be overlooked.

If I were to document the history of the 50-star U.S. flag, what dates would be necessary? We can point to the date it was first hoisted on July 4, 1960.

But a complete analysis would need to go further. We would need to travel backwards in time to the Executive Order issued by President Eisenhower, to document the date it was designed (if known), date the design was accepted, the laws that were enacted prior to the date of the flag's "Event One."

Whether I would include all of the accumulated dates in any paper I would write is a decision that would be based upon what I was writing at a particular time. In fact, the information could be the basis for several articles, both scholarly and for the mass media. But if the information base that I am constructing is incomplete in any way by excluding information which an overt prejudice may rule out as unimportant, then the veracity of any article which I might write might be called into question.

2. Colors. Again, this is very basic information, or so it may seem. The ideal in documentation would be to have a color specification, in law or in practice or by design specification, which bases the description on a standard, such as Pantone or another accepted system. These make the specifications exact (even if they cannot be reproduced 100% on the printed page). Lacking a standard we are forced to rely upon other practices of describing a color - observation being a key element in reproducing the flag. One such standard is the Flag Information System adopted by FIAV. Here, colors can be identified using a shorthand that includes not only basic colors, but also representations of up to 5 shades of the color.

But observation does have its problems. We are dependent upon our perception, a perception that can be clouded by environmental factors: Was the day sunny or clear? Was the flag observation tainted by pollution making materials look different? Or was the flag soiled? Could our memory have been wrong when we image based upon photograph attributed the color to be a R+, when inaccuracy: fair reality it is a R++?

3. Changes to the flag. Flags do change, some dramatically. But there are known instances when a color has been changed for another (the Netherlands) for practical reasons. For the researcher, this may require defining the scope of the study.

4. Symbolism. The flag researcher must consider the two types of symbolism, namely colors and the presence of any object on the flag. But the researcher must consider that the symbolism is not necessarily static. On the day it was adopted it may mean one thing, but political turmoil or other societal factors may cause the governing political body to redefine what the flag means - even if this is not compatible with the original definition.

5. Blazons. Many flags are based upon armorial grants. Consequently they can be described in heraldic terms. But not all flags originate from heraldry. Is it correct or proper to blazon flags which do not arise from a heraldic environment?

6. Depictions. Flag charts can be wrong. They may show the flag(s) being studied incorrectly. How has this flag been shown? Why was it depicted that way? What impact has that image had on subsequent flag charts? And for how long was the error repeated? Can this erroneous depiction have led to a vexillological legend?

7. Predecessors and Successors. What flag(s), if any, were in use prior to the flag under study? And what flag replaced it and why? Were elements of a previous or subsequent flags in the flag design?

8. Historical factors. What role has the flag had in historical events in the country, community or organization? Has it served any psychological or sociological need?

9. Design. Are there specifications as to the manufacture? What dimensions are specified by law? What are the dimensions as manufactured for the public? What accoutrements (finial, fringe, tassel, etc.) are used with the flag both with the civilian government, military units, or by the general populace? Are there defacements to the flag, and if so, what do they mean?

10. Usage. Under what circumstances is the flag used? Is it meant to be flown daily or only upon certain occasions? Is the flag used as a state flag or as a merchant flag? Are there explicit prohibitions regarding its use? Are there other factors, such as zoning laws, which indirectly may limit the use of the flag?

[FIS summary]

Granted, these building blocks apply more to the work products produced by William Crampton or Whitney Smith, but some of the factors may be applied to the work conducted by Orenski and Kaye as well. The importance of these building blocks is immense even if not all the material may be used in a single article or work. Given the potential of a project to move beyond the original scope, it is often important to have too much documentation versus too little documentation.

3. Surveys

The Orenski and Kaye studies provide an interesting contrast to traditional vexillological research and study. The accumulation of facts necessary to produce a vexillological text is quantifiable and discoverable. Orenski's and Kaye's surveys must first discover the facts or opinions which have no existing data prior to the sturdy. Such research must extract the opinions and the knowledge of those who respond to the polls.

The research that may be gathered by Whitney Smith or Alfred Znamierowski can be duplicated with sufficient research. A well designed poll can be used to predict events within a certain degree of accuracy.8 Unlike traditional public opinion surveys, the models provided to the vexillological community by Orenski and Kaye have no precedents, no way of determining standard deviation or reliability. But since few surveys have been conducted at this time to determine the attitude held regarding specific flag designs or how people view flag usage locally or how those flags are created, such surveys hold considerable information when analyzed properly, not to the vexillological community but also to those who may conduct future surveys.

In both surveys the tool for collecting information was the Internet. Given the polls involved, this can influence the results either positively or negatively. Should the issue being investigated be emotionally charged, the presence of a survey or poll may be skewed by upsurges in responses when groups having a cause make the poll known to their membership and the result is a large number of responses. Data, therefore, has the potential to be impacted in a manner not proportionate to surveys designed and executed by more traditional means.

The data collected by Orenski showed information recorded by 194 respondents in 42 countries (several responses, he notes, were eliminated due to perceived unreliability in information). The fact that data was collected from only 42 countries also shows the limits of the Internet. Costs vary in different countries, ranging from flat fees to per-minute charges. Some countries even regulate the access to the Internet. And finally, usage is often related to the amount of disposable income of any particular person.

If, for instance, we can account for data responses which show patriotic and nationalistic overtones then we can begin to develop some form of validation of the data. And while Orenski dealt with the public perception of people to flags and usage, Kaye analyzed perceptions regarding flag design. Kay noted that in a 3-day period following an interview in Texas on his survey, the number of responses favoring the Texas flag increased dramatically.

For the vexillologist exploring the vexillological study through surveys several questions must be posed:

1. Is the survey comprehensive enough? Orenski, for instance, added an additional question on potential local flag restrictions from his first draft in order to account for any prohibitions that may have been known which would limit the public flying a local or national flag. Understanding external factors which have relevance is essential to understanding how flag objects are used.

2. Is the poll simple enough that it will attract both vexillologists and the general public?

3. Are the terms well defined and such that words which may have a semantic meaning to one person carry the same semantic meaning for another? This is particularly important in the Internet environment where the survey language may not be the native language of the respondent.

4. What methods should or can be employed to prevent a survey from becoming a sounding board for political or cultural groups?

5. Should the product result be independent? or should it be "bundled"? Consider Kaye's survey which was released simultaneously with his "Good Flag, Bad Flag" brochure.9 Does this relationship imply to the public a potential bias in data collection?10

6. Would the surveys show similar results if repeated in 10 or 20 years? We may not be talking about percentages or even response rates. But if new flags appeared in areas such as Nevada or Mississippi would the survey be such that one could approximate the attitudes of the citizenry?

The second factor that Hawking notes in explaining that cosmology is/was not a science: the inability of the discipline to predict anything about the universe due to limitations which start at the beginning of the universe.11 I note this fact here because of the basic inability of vexillology to predict what will happen in the world of flags. We cannot predict that any country will adopt a new flag in the future. We cannot predict what the colors of any new flag will be with any degree of certainty. We cannot always predict the symbols to be used on the flag.12 But we could, using the pre-election polls conducted by polling organizations in 2001, project the proposed new flag of Mississippi would be rejected by the voters. Given the public response following the 2001 adoption of the flag of the state of Georgia, we might predict (with or without certainty) that this will be merely a transitional flag, with something new on the horizon, or a reversion to a prior version of the flag.13

For all intents and purposes, vexillological surveys are in their infancy stage. As surveys can grab public attention and raise both constructive and destructive criticism, it is important that their foundations are firmly secure. A simple survey methodology may make the it suspect. A single perception of bias, implied in the questions or not, may result in the survey being questioned. There is not methodology that can be easily applied to an Internet survey which guarantees the responses are within 5% of the real views of the people who may have opinions on the matter.14 There is no organization that can conduct polls in traditional formats to gather the volume of responses needed at a price which makes the polling affordable to vexillologists without seeking a grant.




In the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, the emperor and his court are convinced by con men that only those of noble breeding can see the cloth and the finery of the clothes that have been “tailored” for the emperor. In the end, all realize they are fooled when a child states aloud that the ruler is wearing no clothes. Like the foil of this fairy tale, we must realize that without providing guidance to the collection and analysis of data, then vexillology, as a scientific or scholarly discipline, will be exposed for all the world to see.


1. S.W. Hawking, The Nature of Time and Space, lectures delivered at the Isaac Newton Institute, available at <>. The lecture on Quantum Cosmology is the third lecture of three.

The importance of Hawking's observation can be applied to the vexillological field. Prior to the emphasis on assuring we have accurate representations and information, all that could be said was that "flags exist."

[Editorial Note: Hawking's work was last accessed in 2002. Presently located at <>]


8 Polls such as the Gallup poll and other scientifically conducted polls attempt to provide a broad enough sample so that the accuracy falls within a few percentage points of being accurate.

9 E. Kaye, Good flag, bad flag, North American Vexillological Association <>

10 This is used only as an example. Kaye’s study reported nearly identical results for vexillologists and the general public. The brochure follows several design basics that have been promoted for years.

11 S.W. Hawking, op cit.

12 A prime example is the flag of the territory of Nunavut in Canada (unveiled and hoisted in 1999). In the days prior to the formal creation of the territory, and the unveiling of the coat-of-arms and flag, numerous flags, purported to be the one that would be adopted, were sent to the FOTW mailing list, all asking if anyone had heard if this was the new flag. These were based upon speculation, proposals that people had made and or speculative and erroneous information. All that could be predicted was the presence of an inukshuk somewhere on the flag.

13 When this essay was originally produced it was approximately 1 year after the state of Georgia had adopted the “Barnes banner.” The prediction that it would be a short-lived flag was accurate in that in 2003 the state adopted a new flag, pending the resolution of the issue by ballot in 2004.

14 The perfect example is the poll conducted by the Literary Digest for the 1936 presidential election, where the respondents overwhelming favored Alf Landon over Franklin Roosevelt. The poll used telephone responses, limiting viewpoints as the phone was not as widely available across the socioeconomic strata in 1936 as in 2000. When the election was over the Literary Digest was disgraced.