The annual meetings of NAVA, the North American Vexillological Association, are fantastic events for anyone interested in flags, attracting all flavors of vexillologists — historians, activists, collectors, vendors, designers, and general enthusiasts — from the US, Canada, and beyond. 2016 is a milestone year for NAVA, as it celebrates a half-century of these meetings.
NAVA 50 takes place from Friday, 14 October through Sunday, 16 October at the DoubleTree Hotel in Campbell, California (six miles from downtown San Jose, in the Bay Area). For complete details, see the NAVA 50 webpage.
A: This man coined the word vexillology and helped organize flag studies into an global research community of that name.
Q: Who is Dr. Whitney Smith?
Today is Whitney Smith’s 76th birthday. He was born 26 February 1940 in Arlington, Massachusetts to a family of teachers and became fascinated as a child of five or six by the many flags he saw around him at the end of World War II. He asked his mother about them, and school teacher that she was, she encouraged him to learn for himself from dictionaries and books. This led to a fateful discovery: he’d need to do the research himself! In an interview with Encyclopaedia Brittanica (for which he wrote over 290 articles) he said:
When I discovered how many flags there were, I wanted to learn about all of them, but most of the books then available were not very helpful, and there were actual contradictions in what they said. That got me working on the question of what the real answers to my questions were. In a sense that has continued right up to the present day.
At the age of 18 he published a two-page article, Flags of the Arab World, in the journal The Arab World. The word vexillology appears for the first time in its first sentence: “One of the most interesting phases of vexillology — the study of flags — is the important contribution to our heritage of flags by the Arab World.”
In 1961, the year he graduated from Harvard, he co-founded The Flag Bulletin, the first flag studies journal. (The first issue was published 1 October 1961.) As a graduate student in American history at Boston University, he established the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Mass. (1962), co-organized the first International Congress of Vexillology (ICV) in Muiderberg in the Netherlands (1965), and founded the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) in Boston on 3 June 1967. In 1968 he received his Ph.D. in political science with a dissertation entitled Prolegomena to the Study of Political Symbolism, and went on to teach on the faculty at Boston University for a couple years before dropping out of mainstream academia to focus on his research center, NAVA, and vexillology.
Both the biennial International Congresses of Vexillology and annual NAVA meetings are still going strong: NAVA 50 will take place 14-16 October this year in San Jose, CA; and ICV 27 on 7-11 August 2017 at Imperial College, London. The Flag Research Center is no longer an independent business, but has been incorporated into the Trust for Vexillology, a nonprofit supporting the Smith Collection at the Briscoe Center in Texas. His Flag Bulletin ceased publication with its 233rd issue.
Though well-known and well-liked in the vexillology community, Whitney Smith kept (and keeps) a low public profile. One peek into his life occurred in a 1985 People Magazine story that portrayed him as a thoughtful eccentric:
“I’m a monomaniac,” he says, “that’s clear. But I’m more fortunate than most people because I have something that infuses my whole life. I relate flags to everything.”
(Indeed, a beauty of an interdisciplinary pursuit like vexillology is how it connects to so many topics and perspectives.) The article goes on to explain that being a monomaniac who is really, really into flags does not necessarily mean being an ultra-patriot or flag worshipper:
It would be wrong, though, to assume that Smith is a flag-waver. While he professes genuine excitement about the individual liberties the stars-and-stripes represents, his passion for the American flag, or anyone else’s, is scholarly and not chauvinistic. He was appalled by an old Texas law that allowed a judge to sentence an offender to 25 years in prison for flag desecration. “Our flag stands for freedom,” he says. “The most fundamental desecration of the spirit of the flag is to limit what can be done with it.” To make his point, Smith once appeared as a defense witness for a teenager in Massachusetts who was arrested for sewing a flag to the seat of his pants and sentenced to six months hard labor. “I have always prided myself on being a pragmatist,” Smith explains. “I want to understand why people are emotional about flags. But I want to have an outside perspective. Essentially I like to think of myself as a Martian, one who has no prejudices, who comes to earth and sees some cloth on a stick and notices that if you step on it, people get angry.”
Whitney Smith is retired now; his vast collection of flag-related materials was donated to the University of Texas at Austin in 2013. It is now housed as the Dr. Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection at the Briscoe Center for American History. (Photographs of some of the materials were included in the press release announcing its formation.) The collection is currently being indexed, so the Briscoe Center at present only provides a list of subjects covered:
Flags–Confederate States of America
Flags–Law and legislation
National songs–United States
Popular culture–United States–History–19th century
Popular culture–United States–History–20th century
Semaphores and signs
Signals and signaling
Standards, Military–United States
Symbolism in politics–United States
Symbols of American freedom
United States. Air Force–Insignia
United States. Army–Flags
United States. Marine Corps–Insignia
United States. Navy–Flags
United States–History-Civil War, 1861-1865–Pictorial Works
Yachts–Flags, insignia, etc.
(Conspicuously absent from this list, alas: Vexillology.)
So today, his 76th birthday, let’s thank Whitney Smith for giving us this still nascent field of vexillology by going out and advancing the field by researching, designing, collecting, promoting, or just sharing your interest in a flag!
Hello Internet (hellointernet.fm, @HelloInternetFM) is a podcast by prolific YouTube celebrities C. G. P. Grey and Brady Haran. Vexillology appears to be a recurring theme. For example, the current episode, H.I. #51: Appropriately Thinking It, includes discussion of the Fiji flag referendum and a design contest they are running to create a Hello Internet flag.
As supporting material for their Fiji flag discussion, they linked to our handy all-on-one-page guide to the 23 finalists for a new Fiji flag. As a result, we’ve had over 14,000 views of that blog entry over the last week — an all-time site record. To which, we just want to say: hello, Hello Internet!
For their flag contest, they’re collecting votes (that must be mailed to Bristol, England using physical post cards) for five candidate designs:
Nail & Gear
Club & Claws
Read the rules, and send your properly formatted votes off to England. They must arrive by 17:00 UK time on December 3rd to be counted.
It was 57 years ago this month that the word vexillology first appeared in print, in an article by the founder of flag studies, Whitney Smith, in the now discontinued journal The Arab World.
Here is a transcription of the article.
FLAGS of the ARAB WORLD
By WHITNEY SMITH, Jr.
One of the most interesting phases of vexillology — the study of flags — is the important contribution to our heritage of flags by the Arab World. The fringes and tassels so often used on banners are derived from those that decorated the robes of religious leaders of the ancient Middle East; triangular flags are another Arab innovation. The custom of attaching one end of a flag to a pole while the rest is allowed to fly free is Arab in origin: the Romans and Greeks suspended their ensigns from cross-bars affixed to staffs or spears. And the designs in use today in many countries have been directly influenced by an Arab tradition, unfettered by European heraldic rules, which developed new and striking flags to command the allegiance of millions. Pictured below are the present-day National Flags of the members of the League of Arab States.
League of Arab States. The League flag has a green background symbolizing the fertile lands of the Arab World, such as the Nile and Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys. The prosperity of the members of the League is represented by the white wreath of grain and their solidarity by the golden chain; the white crescent has long been a symbol of the Islamic religion and of Arab states. In the center the Arabic words “The League of Arab States” appear in conventionalized form.
Algeria. At the time of the landing of the French army of invasion in Algeria, and when Emir Abdel-Kader led the resistance of the Algerian people against the French forces, the Algerian flag was half green and half white, with a golden open hand (signifying friendship). The green was the color of the prophet, while the white meant purity. In the early twenties, when the first nationalist movements for independence were organized, the Red Crescent and Star replaced the golden hand. The Crescent and Star are symbols of Arab lands in general and they fly in the skies everywhere.
Iraq. The Iraqi tricolor of black, white, and green is the newest Arab flag; it was first used officially on 14 July 1959, the first anniversary of the Republic of Iraq. In the center is a red star surmounted by a white-bordered yellow circle, this being a modification of the new National Seal. These designs replace a flag and coat-of-arms of the same colors, but different design, which had been used since 1924.
Jordan. The Jordanian flag is like that of Iraq with stripes of black (top), white (middle), and green (bottom), but there is only one star and a red triangle replaces the trapezium at the hoist of the Iraqi flag. These so-called “Pan-Arab” colors are sometimes interpreted as meaning the fertility of Arab lands (green), the past centuries of disunity and oppression (black), the hope for a great future (red), and Arab chivalry and hospitality (white).
Kuwait. Kuwait, although not presently a member of the League of Arab States, has recently participated in various activities of the Arab League. Since the word “Kuwait” which is in white on the flag reads from right to left and shows through on the other side, the flag must be pictured with the pole to the right. The flag has the characteristic red field of Arab flags and was first hoisted in 1914.
Lebanon. The green cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Bible have long been an emblem of that nation and it is appropriate that there should be one on the National Flag which was adopted in 1943 when the country gained its freedom. The red stripes symbolize self-sacrifice for the nation, the white denotes peace, and the cedar tree is a sign of immortality, strength, and holiness.
Libya. Libya became an independent nation in 1951 after many decades of foreign rule. The flag designed at this time was based on the black flag with a white star and crescent used by Cyrenaica (one of the Libyan provinces); a red stripe was added for Fezzan and a green one for Tripolitanian. The star and crescent motif has been used by Arab countries for 500 years and appears on flags of countries stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to the Malay States near the Pacific.
Morocco. A red background has been employed in many Moroccan flags; one of these had two crossed white yataghans (a type of sword) and a border of white triangles and one was solid red with no device at all. The present flag, adopted in 1915 and now flown from Tangiers to the Sahara, has in the center a green five-pointed star with interlaced sides which also appears in the National Coat-of-Arms.
Saudi Arabia. On the green background of the Saudi National Flag is written the Muslim creed la illaha illah allah wa muhammad ur-rusul allah — there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God. The white Arabic script reads from right to left and must be sewn separately on each side of the flag so that it does not appear backwards. The basic design is like that of a banner carried centuries ago by an Arab general in the time of Omar.
Sudan. The Sudan flew the Egyptian and British ensigns together for the decades that it was under their condominium. Then, upon gaining independence in 1956, a new National Flag was adopted of three equal horizontal stripes. The blue (top) stands for the Nile River that enriches the nation, the yellow (center) for the deserts found there, and the green (bottom) for the fertility of the land.
Tunisia. Long under the domination of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia continued to employ the red banner and star and crescent used by the Turks but put a distinctive white circle in the centre when independence was won. This flag, like that of Libya, is pictured as flying from right to left because a waxing moon (increscent) is considered more favorable than a waning one (decrescent). The true heraldic crescent has the horns pointing upwards, as in the League flag.
United Arab Republic. The United Arab Republic was created last year by the union of the independent nations of Syria and Egypt; a flag for the new nation became official on April 10, 1958. It retains the four colors of the former Egyptian and Syrian flags by having three horizontal stripes of black, white, and red (from top to bottom) and two green stars in the center to represent the two geographical regions of the country.
Yemen. For centuries Yemen had flown a red flag with Arabic script on either side, but in 1927 this became the King’s Standard and Ensign of the National Guard. The new flag adopted then is still red but carries five white stars, one for each of the geographical regions that the country is composed of, and surrounded by the stars a white sabre much like that on the Saudi flag.
[Published in the journal The Arab World, volume 5, October 1958, pp. 12-13.]
How did this come to be? Cloe Shasha wrote about this last month in the TED Blog in a piece entitled How Roman Mars fought the instinct to give the big, grand, sweeping TED Talk — and gave the talk he wanted. Anyone who has dealt with TED, or viewed many TED talks, knows that these performances are explicitly coached to fit into a particular format, what Shasha called “the stereotypical sage-on-a-stage TED Talk”. It is not so easy for TED presenters who are not comfortable with it to “give the talk they wanted”, so it is a testament to Mars’ negotiation skills that he managed to pull it off.
Equally important, though, is the role Ted Kaye played as Roman Mars’ mostly uncredited partner in this talk. (Shasha mentions him and the PFA at the very end of her piece, along with Mars’ clarification, “I’m not the expert. I’m a journalist.”) Mars is a conversationalist and storyteller, not a monologist, and Kaye provided both the conversational partner (quite literally, through Mars calling up pre-recorded sound bites) and story (they ways in which flag design can so easily go wrong in his compendium of design principles, Good Flag, Bad Flag). And as Kaye often points out, GFBF is not the work of a solo author but a compilation:
These principles of good flag design distill the wisdom of many people who have written on the subject, including Philippe Bondurand, Frederick Brownell, William Crampton, Michael Faul, Jim Ferrigan, Richard Gideon, Kevin Harrington, Lee Herold, Ralph Kelly, Rich Kenny, David Martucci, Clay Moss, Peter Orenski, Whitney Smith, Steve Tyson, Henry Untermeyer, and Alfred Znamierowski. (From the back cover of GFBF.)
The individual cult of personality (aka, celebrity) encouraged by social media is both its strength and its weakness. The huge popularity of TED stems as much from its insistence that its speakers not only be a “sage-on-a-stage” but also an engaging storyteller, one who is ultimately telling a story about his or her self, as from its “ideas worth spreading”. But this same focus on the individual as entertainer (and confessor) downplays the way in which all these talks rely on an often unseen and unacknowledged constellation of people who together with the performer, directly and indirectly, jointly produced the story. Roman Mars’ TED talk is all the more remarkable in pushing back against this, and at least partially bringing to light the collaborative nature and social give-and-take of design or any production of knowledge.
NAVA has probably had its greatest impact by publishing in 2006 Good Flag, Bad Flag (GFBF), a booklet of practical advice to flag designers. Drawing upon the writings of over a dozen vexillologists,† Ted Kaye distilled five basic design principles and illustrated these with positive and negative examples. GFBF has been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, and formed the basis for Roman Mars’ TED Talk this year that has garnered over one million views! (Inexplicably, NAVA removed GFBF from its website last year; we’re happy to report that it’s back, though somewhat buried.)
If you are interested in flags, NAVA needs your support.
† Philippe Bondurand, Frederick Brownell, William Crampton, Michael Faul, Jim Ferrigan, Richard Gideon, Kevin Harrington, Lee Herold, Ralph Kelly, Rich Kenny, David Martucci, Clay Moss, Peter Orenski, Whitney Smith, Steve Tyson, Henry Untermeyer, and Alfred Znamierowski,
‡ For NAVA’s 50th annual meeting (San José, CA, 14-16 Oct 2016), the deadline for submissions to the flag design contest is the end of this month, 31 August 2015.
We’d like to pass along this invitation from NAVA’s Ken Reynolds. (And please note that early-bird registration ends in less than a month.)
I hope that each of you will consider attending NAVA‘s 49th annual meeting from October 16-18, 2015. It’s been a dozen years since the Association held its annual meeting in Canada (NAVA 37, Montréal, 2003) and, as you likely already know, Ottawa has been chosen as the site for NAVA 49. I’m very excited to be able to act as the local host organizer for NAVA 49 and to be able to welcome you to my adopted hometown and to our nation’s capital. It is a particularly special year, vexillologically-speaking, for Canada in that 2015 is the 50th anniversary year of the maple leaf national flag adopted in 1965, a fact that will be reflected in the location, site visits, and some of the presentations delivered.
This year’s meeting will be located at the Ottawa Marriott Hotel, in the downtown core, close to Parliament Hill, the National Gallery of Canada, the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as other interesting sites, and a wide variety of shopping venues. In addition to a selection of strong and interesting papers on vexillology, we also have other exciting things planned for NAVA 49. Dr. Claire Boudreau, the Chief Herald of Canada, as well as some of her staff, will deliver the Preble Lecture on the subject of the “Flag Creation Process” as part of the Canadian Heraldic Authority’s granting of arms to municipalities, individuals, etc. This will be followed by the Presidents’ Reception at the Sussex Salon on the 27th floor of the Ottawa Marriott Hotel. A site visit has been arranged to the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization) where guests will be able to explore more on the background of the Canadian national flag as well as other flag-related material. The Whitney Smith Dinner will be held in the beautiful Summit Room on the 29th floor of the Ottawa Marriott Hotel with its 360-degree view of the National Capital Region. Robert Labonté, a federal public servant, will be the dinner speaker and will discuss his role as the individual who raises, lowers, and replaces the Canadian flags atop the Peace Tower on the Parliament Building on a daily basis.
Registration for NAVA 49 is well underway, with early-bird registration rates running through August 4, before the rates begin to increase. Please remember, if you’re American, that you require a US passport card, US passport, or NEXUS card to enter Canada (which one depends upon the means of arrival)–but Americans don’t need a visa. Citizens of other nations can find out about their entry requirements on the relevant website of the Canadian government. This, and further details on NAVA 49–including how to register–can be found on the meeting’s webpage on the NAVA website. And, you can email me at email@example.com as well.
I hope to see you here in Ottawa this October!
Ken Reynolds, PhD
Member | Membre
Program Committee | Comité de programme
North American Vexillological Association | Association nord-américaine de vexillologie firstname.lastname@example.org
Flag scholar and NAVA vice president Annie Platoff was on the Pacifica radio network yesterday discussing vexillology, the Confederate flag, roots of people’s attachment to flags, the Apollo flags on the moon, and Russian and Ukrainian flags. She was a guest on Brad Friedman’s “BradCast” at bradblog.com/?p=11241. (Skip 8:40 into the broadcast to hear the flag segment.)
This marked a milestone in visibility for vexillology. Mars calls his design podcast 99% Invisible, and “99% Invisible” is actually not a bad characterization of vexillology. A young field, it sprang up in the late 1960s when political scientist Whitney Smith and collaborators began to develop a systematic approach to the subject, founded the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), and organized annual meetings. It wasn’t until 1994 that NAVA’s annual journal Raven began showcasing academic vexillological research. Despite a core of dedicated researchers, this interdisciplinary enterprise still for the most part flies under the radar.
Two days ago a video of the talk became available on ted.com and YouTube, and we noticed a spike in traffic to this our website. (Welcome, TED visitors!) Why? Because much of Mars’ talk featured excerpts from a recorded interview with Ted Kaye, a founder of PFA and the compiler of the most influential resource for flag design advice, a NAVA booklet entitled Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag. (Bafflingly, NAVA has removed this booklet from the public portion of their website, but you can still find a copy of it here on the PFA site — in English and five other languages — as well as elsewhere on the net.)
Mars brought an almost evangelical zeal to teaching the audience about the Good Flag, Bad Flag principles. The crux of the talk is that these principles of good design are important not just for city flag design but for city design more generally:
Roman Mars: As we move more and more into cities,the city flag will becomenot just a symbol of that city as a place,but also it could becomea symbol of how that city considers design itself,especially today, as the populace is becoming more design-aware.And I think design awareness is at an all-time high.A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a cityconsiders all of its design systems:its public transit,its parks, its signage.It might seem frivolous, but it’s not.
Ted Kaye: Often when city leaders say,“We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,”my response is,“If you had a great city flag,you would have a banner for people to rally underto face those more important things.”
Roman Mars: I’ve seen firsthand what a good city flag can doin the case of Chicago.The marriage of good design and civic prideis something that we need in all places.The best part about municipal flagsis that we own them.They are an open-source,publicly owned design language of the community.