The last issue of The Flag Bulletin (Number 233, July 2008-October 2011) is titled Celebrating 50 Years of Vexillology and commemorates the launch of the Bulletin–the first flag studies journal–on 1 October 1961. More specifically, it is a celebration of the life of Whitney Smith, upon his retirement, through a long series of personal recollections of his friends and family.
One of these is by his sister, Sybil Smith, and includes a story about how Whitney Smith learned that his design for the flag of Guyana had been selected, and what happened then:
When Guyana showed signs of political upheaval Whitney designed a flag for them and our mother stitched up a prototype and Whitney sent it off. It wasn’t until years later that Guyana adopted a new flag that looked similar to the one he had designed. Writing to the powers that were in charge, he questioned the origin of their new flag only to find out they had been looking for him. It was then that we started calling our mother “the Betsy Ross of Guyana.” Whitney was later invited to Guyana’s Independence Day celebration. They were slightly surprised to find out he wasn’t a native, but rather a white American. An invitation from The White House came from President Lyndon Johnson when he hosted a luncheon in honor of the Prime Minister of Guyana. Whitney was sort of low man on the totem pole seated at table #10 with the president of the Stock Exchange and others, but table #10 was right next to table #1 where the president and prime minister sat.
In Smith’s original design, the red and the green altered their positions. I believe that it was because that those who participate in a contest want to win the contest. Smith made his design prevaling the red color according to the leftist inclinations of the premier Mr. Jagan (a ethnic Indian pro-Soviet). The design of Vaclav Kalikova also show a gold triangle (but single) from hoist to fly and rest is green (and a blue star is in the yellow triangle). Perhaps the College of arms made a mixture of both designs. I believe that the five colors were in fact requested by the government (I read it) but I don’t remember if for Mr. Jagan or Mr. Burham. The fimbriations are against the heraldic principles and it is strange that the College of Arms (always precise) added unnecesary fimbriations.
To give Whitney Smith the last word, here is the entry for Guyana from his book Flag Lore of All Nations:
In 1960 the author of this book sent a flag design to Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, who added it to the many other proposals received. When the British finally agreed to independence for their colony, the author’s flag design was slightly modified. Parliament officially adopted it, and when Guyana became independent on May 26, 1966, the flag was first officially raised. Green stands for the jungles and fields, white for the many rivers of Guyana; black is for perseverance, and red for nation building. The golden arrowhead [the flag’s nickname] symbolizes a thrust forward toward a golden future for the country and recalls the original Indian inhabitants of Guyana.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.]