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Lettering on flags

Last modified: 2012-01-14 by rob raeside
Keywords: lettering |
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This discussion on lettering in flags was prompted by the comments on the proposal to add the lettering: "DC - Taxation Without Representation" to the District of Columbia flag. - Editor

I was thinking why Americans seem to love to add words to flags (see most state flags, and even more civic flags, as examples), then I realized that it could be linked to the American vexillologic tradition; thinking of early American flags, they featured words too, like the "Don't Give Up The Ship" flag, or the "Don't Tread on Me" flag (and there's another that is a red engsign with white writign along the bottom of the flag, but I can't quite think what that flag is.) I"m thinking this may have been a deliberate departure from British flags of the time (and still today) which rarely featured writing.
David Kendall, 28 July 2004

Someone (Whitney Smith) once suggested that it reflected the relatively high degree of literacy in the American colonies of the 18th-19th centuries when such flags were introduced, as compared to that in medieval-to-renaissance Europe when national symbols began being adopted on that side of the Atlantic. Does that make sense?
Joe McMillan, 28 July 2004

Somewhat, as in, in Europe, people would identify themselves more with coats of arms or livery colours (so that over there when you see red-white-red on a flag, you'd think "Austria", whereas in the USA, you'd see "SOUTH DAKOTA" on a flag, you'd think "South Dakota" :), or express themselves in Europe through colour (like if you're a revolutionary, a red banner would be instantly recognizable to others of your beliefs, whereas in the US, if you're a revolutionary, you'd put a revolutionary slogan on a flag (much like they do in the Arab world too, I believe.))
David Kendall, 28 July 2004

It's worth noting that another group of flags which are notable for having writing on them are the early Soviet revolutionary flags of the early 20th there could be something to the appeal to revolutionaries.
Steve Kramer, 29 July 2004

I would like to suggest that writing on flags is a sign of the absence of imagination and artistic creativity. I also think that it's a very ugly thing in a flag, but that's a subjective judgment.

A flag that is nothing but words -- examples range from "Don't give up the ship" to a host of municipal flags, including Plano, Texas (which I happened to see in a photo recently) -- is, in my estimation, a cop-out -- that is to say, a surrender to dullness. The same could be said, with only the slightest reservation, about flags that are primarily lettered banners, even though they may have some art -- Fort Worth, TX USA comes to mind.

I am reminded of the late poet Robert Frost's observation that writing unrhymed verse was, to him, like playing tennis without a net. In other words, there is a challenge here, and if you avoid it, you are behaving like a coward, as it were. This is vexillology, not literature -- and not representational painting, either. Totally pictorial flags -- one thinks of the :garden banners" that are sold across the US -- are not, I repeat not, really flags (IMHO). They are a poor man's tapestry, if you like, or flexible artwork not far from Elvis on velvet. But not flags. Once in a while, one is stylized and abstract enough that it comes close to qualifying as a sort of decorative flag, perhaps -- I have a few that I fly from time to time, usually to mark the seasons of the year.

I have been working in the back of my mind for a long time on a rating system for flag design, with added points for good design, like balanced colours, and points taken away for bad design. Lettering on flags would certainly be part of this system, and I think the larger the lettering, the more points off!. Once I get this system clear in my mind, I'll put it out on the table and let you guys snipe at it.
Bill Dunning, 28 July 2004

I am inclined to agree, especially within the context of "western" vexillology. But it is culturally dependent: the Arabic and East Asian cultures prize calligraphy more highly than Europe/America, and such flags as the Saudi can be considered quite lovely. In addition, "motto" flags are of vexillological and historical interest, even if not highly prized for design: consider Taunton's "Liberty and Union" (mentioned earlier), "An Appeal to Heaven", "Don't Tread on Me", and so on. These are noteworthy because the motto is part of a larger design, not the entirety of it. And I agree, I wouldn't design a flag like that today.
Albert Kirsch, 28 July 2004

It should also be pointed out that, in some cases, the message itself is a kind of symbol. For example, most Americans recognize the phrase "No Taxation Without Representation" as having a strong link to their country's historical roots, because of its association with the causes of the American Revolution. It has a resonance that would not obtain from a phrase like "We Demand Our Votes" or some such thing. Putting this phrase on the DC flag would be a symbolic appeal to an American historical tradition.

Similarly, "Appeal to Heaven" had a strong resonance with Americans in 1775. It was a quote from Locke's "Second Treatise on Government," which espoused the right of an oppressed people to take up arms against their oppressors. (Most educated Americans of the time had read Locke and he was quoted in many Revolutionary documents.) The phrase itself was a powerful unifying symbol, as opposed to something generic like "Down With The King."
Peter Ansoff, 28 July 2004

Ah, but what about those (primarily Muslim) countries that usually have Arabic writing and nothing else, or a small bit of "art" on them? (Saudi Arabia is the only current national flag example I can think of, but there are other Muslim flags, as we know.) It seems the general vexillological opinion is that they are appealing, because calligraphy is a high art form out there, and they take care to make it visually appealing, which is why Arab world flags probably have the highest instance of "writing on flags" outside the USA!
David Kendall, 29 July 2004

I think one criteria (among others) for making flags with writings is the lack of time to look for a commonly accepted flag design. I can imagine that in times of war and revolutions there have been more writings on flags. This is not the only reason for such writings, of course there have been made such flags in peace times and the Arabic/Islamic tradition has been mentioned. The example of "Don't give up the ship" has been mentioned, a flag that has been made just before a battle at sea (Lake Erie), recently we had the newspaper report about the New Orleans Greys flag which was made quickly by the Texans on occasion of the unexpected help from Louisiana or we have the flag of the Lemanic Republic which was a product of a favourable historical constellation.
Martin Karner, 30 July 2004