Phoenix Flags

There are 14 Phoenixes and 5 Phenixes in the United States, but only one of these has a flag: to nobody’s surprise, it’s Phoenix, Arizona.  And again, to nobody’s surprise, the flag of Phoenix, Arizona has a phoenix on it.  It’s in the form of a highly stylized logo that won the Great Phoenix Bird Design Competition of 1987.

500px-Flag_of_Phoenix,_Arizona.svg
Flag of Phoenix, Arizona. Designed in 1990 by the graphic design firm Smit, Ghomlely, Sanft.

More interestingly, Phoenix is just one of eight US communities with phoenixes on their flags.  Most of these refer to settlements quite literally arising out of the ashes of destruction.  In the case of Phoenix, Arizona, this was only metaphorical:  in naming the would-be city, self-proclaimed Lord Darrell Duppa decreed, “A new city will spring phoenix-like upon the ruins of a former civilization [that of the ancient Hohokam canal-builders].”

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Former flag of Phoenix, AZ (1921-1990).

Here are the other seven phoenix-flagged places.

1. San Francisco, California

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The flag of the city and county of San Francisco, designed by John M. Gamble in 1900, adopted 1940, it refers to the rebuilding of the city after fires in the 1850s.

An effort is underway to redesign this flag.

2. Atlanta, Georgia

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Flag designer and date of adoption unknown. The phoenix refers to the destruction of Confederate Atlanta by the US Army in 1864.

3. Portland, Maine

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic presenting the flag of the City of Portland
City Councilor Ed Suslovik presenting Portland’s flag in 2007 to its sister city of Archangel, Russia. The gull-like phoenix refers to several times Portland has been destroyed: by the Abenaki in King Philip’s War (1676),  by the French and their Native American allies in King William’s War (1690), and by the British Navy in the Revolutionary War (1775).

With this long history of destruction and rebuilding (which also includes the Great Fire of Independence Day 1866), Portland, Maine may be the US city most appropriately represented by a phoenix.

4. Lawrence, Kansas

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The phoenix commemorates the destruction and massacre of the city by pro-Confederate raiders in 1863. Below the burning building reads “From Ashes to Immortality”.

 

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From Harper’s weekly, 9/5/1863: The destruction of the city of Lawrence, Kansas, and the massacre of its inhabitants by the Rebel guerrillas, August 21, 1863.

5. Danbury, Connecticut

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Henry Hoyt designed the seal in 1889. The phoenix commemorates Danbury’s destruction by the British Army in 1777.

This is a rare example of a triple-named SOB: “DANBURY” appears three times in this undistinguished “seal on a bedsheet” flag.

6. Leonardtown, Maryland

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The seal and flag were adopted 4 July 1975. The seal displays the coat of arms of Sir John Seymour (1474-1536).

Why, you may wonder, does a town in Maryland use the coat of arms of a 15th-16th century British aristocrat?  It’s a bit of a long story. Maryland was founded by a 17th century British aristocrat, Cecilius Calvert, second baron and Lord Baltimore (1605-1675), and is well known for its aristocratic names and heraldic flags (see the state flag and the flag of Baltimore, for example).  At the time of its establishment Leonardtown was briefly named Seymour Town (1708-1728), in honor the 10th Royal Governor of the Province of Maryland, Col. John Seymour (1704-1709).  His namesake, Sir John, was the father of Henry VIII’s 3rd wife, Jane Seymour (1508-1537). In 1536 Henry gave Jane a badge with a crowned phoenix.

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Badge of Queen Jane Seymour, from Banners, Standards and Badges from a Tudor Manuscript in the College of Arms, 1904.

The following year Jane died giving birth to their son, King Edward VI. Her epitaph reads: “Here lies Jane, a phoenix, who died in giving another phoenix birth. Let her be mourned, as birds like these are rare indeed.”  Edward VI later granted his mother’s phoenix badge to his maternal relatives, the Seymours.

And that’s how a phoenix ended up on a flag of a town in Maryland.

7. Phoenixville, Pennsylvania

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Flag of the Borough of Phoenixville. Photo by Henry Wagner, Borough Council President.

The phoenix in the name and the seal refers to the Phoenix Iron Works, named by Lewis Wernwag when in 1816 he helped buy the French Creek Nail Works, the nation’s first nail factory, founded in 1790.  According to Phoenixville’s Firebird Festival, Wernwag “was looking at his furnaces one evening from a nearby hillside and saw a Phoenix in the flames.”

Metal production in Phoenixville, now an exurb of Philadelphia, ended in 1987 and took a heavy toll on the borough’s economy. The decline began to turn around in the early 2000s, and in 2003 an annual music and arts event, the Firebird Festival, began to celebrate this rebirth.  Each year it culminates, Burning Man-style, in the burning of a large wooden sculpture.

2015 firebird burning small
The Burning of the Bird at last month’s Firebird Festival.  Photo from firebirdfestival.com.

 

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Author: SDM

Ethnography * Technology * Design

4 thoughts on “Phoenix Flags”

  1. Interesting flag.
    It would be nice one day to have a booklet where the subtle differences between a city flag and a national flag are explained. I believe the former can tolerate stylized logos as there are many thousands cities and using only the few basic polygons generally tolerated for national flags would be very problematic. That being said, cities flag must respect all other rules of vexillology (2/3 colors, no text, etc.)
    The great thing about national flags is truly their simplicity and lack of stylized logos. It really puts them in a different category.

    1. Great comment, thanks! Yes, city vs. national flags would be an excellent topic. BTW, I think much of the criticism in New Zealand of the new challenger to the current flag may arise from its logo-like fern element, that might be more appropriate to a municipal flag.

      1. Totally agree. The new challenger is actually more difficult to draw than the current flag and looks like a pennant. It is a pity that most people don’t seem to get that very subtle but important nuance between city and national flags. The art of designing a national flag requires a good understanding of symbolism. I really think this topic deserve to be better explained. City flags are somewhat in a different category, and are almost like simple logos. I believe most people would prefer to design a city flag, as they give a bit more freedom to designers…

        BTW, Fiji has been going through the same problem. I never understood why so many flags in the competition looked like logos, and apparently they were given the all-clear from Mr. Ted Kaye… very strange. It seems that most people will never be able to accept what a national flag ought to look like…

        That being said, city flags should remain as simple as possible, while not “pretending” to be national flags (that is, using a very high level of symbolism like the flag of Italy, Poland, etc.) I love flags with a “romantic” or surprising meaning, like the flag of Indonesia which is said to be the flag of the Netherlands that has been teared apart (not that I support it…it’s just that the flag has a hidden meaning and that is cool) Good flags should have a hidden meaning I believe, or surprise us in one way or another.

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