Vexilloid Tabloid #76

The 76th edition of our newsletter features:

  • Genesis of Good Flag, Bad Flag (Ted Kaye)
  • A “Gray Pride” Flag (David Koski)
  • The Pro-Abortion Gadsden Flag (Ted Kaye)
  • Flaggy Map
  • Flags in School (Michael Orelove)
  • Farewell, Michael Faul & Chumley (Michael Faul)
  • Pirate Flags in the Caribbean (Michael Orelove)
  • The Red Flag (John Cartledge)

And, as always highlights from our last meeting, a roundup of flag news and notes, sightings of the Portland city flag, and the What’s That Flag quiz.  (This issue’s quizmaster: David Ferriday.)

If you have items you would like us to consider for publication in the Tabloid, or would like to be added to the email distribution list so you never miss an issue, please contact



The Gadsden Flag has been endlessly reinterpreted, modified, parodied, and generally played with, as the following examples show.  The design violates a number of basic principles of good flag design, but its ability to capture the imagination and spur creativity shows it to have become a very effective flag nevertheless.


Specific “rights”:




Generalizations to other flags:


What Does a Gadsden Flag Look Like?

Yesterday we asked: Who designed the Gadsden Flag?  And just as we can’t be certain of the designer, neither do we know what the original flag actually looked like.  Nevertheless, the flag marketplace, and cyberspace, has converged on, basically, a single design.  (This suggests a common origin, but we couldn’t pin it down to an artist, enterprise, and date.)  Isn’t it interesting that for a flag whose original design is only vaguely known we’ve ended up with a fairly detailed shared conventional image?

Here is a brief survey of artistic imaginings over the last 50 years.

The earliest illustration we’ve come across is a decidedly unconventional one in Whitney Smith’s The Flag Book of the United States (1970).  Louis Loynes and Lucien Philippe did the illustrations, so one or both of them produced this version found in Plate VII:


Online, we found this GIF created 5 April 1998 by Rick Wyatt still being used in the Flags of the World database.


In the world of social media, back on 8 September 2005 Wikipedia editor Vikrum uploaded a PNG version of this same design — “Historic Gadsden flag created by me based on existing renditions of it.” — a free, shareable version:


Four years later, on 21 February 2009, Wikipedia editor Ptkfgs (now known as BurnDownBabylon) uploaded the version now found there.  They wrote “arial is wrong for the gadsden flag. it didn’t exist until two centuries later. i have re-set it in caslon: 1. it existed when the flag was created; 2. it was quite popular in the colonies; 3. the surviving period flags use a serif typeface.”  Thus, we have the de-facto Internet standard:


But it appears that recently manufactured “Gadsden” flags, on the other hand, typically use the sans-serif text we’ve seen in the Vikrum or Rick Wyatt versions.  In fact, these manufactured designs are almost certainly the source of the versions seen online.

Here’s a sans-serif example from a 2010 posting (at the height of Tea Party frenzy) by Dave the Sage’s blog The Conservative Citizen, The flags and symbols of the TEA Party:


Annin, the largest US flag maker, has been selling this version since at least 2002:



And as is the case with many other flags, the most common examples are likely manufactured in China, like this one:


Or this embroidered, two-sided one:


Interestingly, given their proliferation online, manufactured versions with serif fonts are harder to come by.  But Valley Forge sells the Whitney Smith version as the “historical Gadsden flag”:


Valley Forge also makes a sans-serif “current Gadsden Flag” featuring a snake with a red tongue:


“Wikipedia-standard” Gadsden flags can also be found, made in China:


These designs (with the exception of the Whitney Smith variant) are all very similar.  But the Gadsden Flag has been extended, satirized, and otherwise adapted in a huge variety of ways — the subject of another post.

Who Designed the Gadsden Flag?

The “Gadsden” of “Gadsden Flag” fame is Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina (and not his grandson James Gadsden of Gadsden Purchase fame). In late 1775 the colonel was a member of the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress charged with outfitting the ships of the nascent Continental Navy.

NH_85212-KN cropped
The Continental Ship Alfred being commissioned at Philadelphia, 3 December 1775. Detail from a photo by the US Naval History and Heritage Command of a 1974 painting by W. Nowland Van Powell.

Part of that activity involved coming up with a flag for the navy’s commander-in-chief to fly as his rank flag from the mainmast of his flagship, which they decided would be a yellow flag with a snake and “don’t tread on me” on it.  And indeed, Commodore Esek Hopkins used such a flag on his ship, the Alfred. No examples of this flag survived to the present day, so what we have to go on are these words in an entry for 9 February 1776 in the records of the Provincial Congress of South Carolina:

Col. Gadsden presented to the [Provincial] Congress [of SC] an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American Navy, being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, “Don’t Tread on Me!”

None of this establishes that Col. Gadsden designed Hopkins’ rank flag, though, leaving Whitney Smith (founder of the field of vexillology) decidedly unimpressed:

Because [Col. Gadsden] presented a copy of this flag to the Provincial Congress of South Carolina, it has often, falsely, been called the “Gadsden flag” or the “flag of the South Carolina navy”. [from Smith’s The Flag Book of the United States, 1970, pp. 45-46]

On the other hand, an address by Frederick Cooks Hicks (R-NY) to the US House of Representatives on Flag Day, 1917, and published the next year by the Government Printing Office as The Flag of the United States, says the flag was “designed by Col. Gadsden“.  (Was this Hicks’ inference, or did he have some other source?  If you know, please comment below!)  At any rate, this is now become a commonly held belief, repeated by the Naval History and Heritage Command and many others.

So who did design the Gadsden flag?  Like so many vexillological questions of that era, we really don’t know.