Cedar Rapids, as you likely know, is in the midst of selecting a new design for its city flag. Ideas are flowing in from the citizenry, city officials say.
One reason the city is seeking a new banner is the American Vexillological Association ranked Cedar Rapids’ flag among the nation’s worst. It misses the mark on the association’s design guidelines for what makes a banner that proudly we can wave — a simple design, meaningful symbolism, two or three basic colors, no lettering or seals and a distinctiveness from other flags.
So all of this Cedar Rapids flag-waving prompted me to wonder about our proud state flag of Iowa. I happen to like our state flag, and maybe you do as well. Or, perhaps, you haven’t given it one moment’s thought. Understandable. But we’re hardly trained vexillologists. What do they think of Iowa’s flag?
Well, way back in 2001, the association asked its members and the public to rate 72 state and provincial flags from the United States and Canada on a 10-point scale. State flags from New Mexico and Texas finished at the top of the ratings.
Iowa came in at No. 42, just behind the Mariana Islands and just ahead of Ontario. Our flag scored a 4.72. Not great. I guess our banner does have lettering — our state motto “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain” and “Iowa.” Also, its tricolor simplicity is rather French.
“Iowa tried to turn in the French flag as its own work, but Iowa’s older brother told it to put ‘an eagle with, like, something in its beak’ on, too, to throw the teacher off,” wrote Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri in 2015.
Her piece was headlined, “Every state flag is wrong and here is why,” so we didn’t exactly get singled out. Still, ouch. And who is our big brother anyway?
Our best defense against such criticism is history.
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Iowa’s flag was born in 1917. Up until that point, according to netstate.com and other sources I perused online, we weren’t keen on adopting a state flag. Iowans who fought in the Civil War to restore the union under a single national flag were opposed to the idea.
“The successful termination of that struggle established forever loyalty, love and their entire affection for ‘One country and one flag,” Muscatine County Civil War veterans resolved, according to a news item in The Gazette.
But Iowa National Guard troops were sent into action on the Mexican border in 1916, and then to France in 1917 as the United States joined the Great War. Iowa troops saw units from other states with state flags and wanted their own banner.
The Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution sprang into action and held a contest that yielded several designs. The winner was designed by a member, Dixie Cornell Gebhardt of Knoxville.
It was selected May 11, 1917, by Gov. William Harding. Harding, you may recall, is the same governor who issued the “Babel Proclamation” outlawing the use of languages other than English during World War I, and who became entangled in a bribery scandal that nearly led to his impeachment. But he did pick a nice flag.
Gebhardt wrote Iowa’s flag should embrace its history, including its purchase from France. Its colors were symbolic.
“White was chosen to symbolize the unwritten page of history at the state’s beginning, when the first Native Americans lived on Iowa’s prairies and represents purity. Blue represents loyalty, justice, and truth and red stands for courage,” Gebhardt wrote.
“All of this should be represented in a design so simple that school children and adults can recognize its symbolism and know that it meant Iowa,” Gebhardt wrote.
Sounds pretty vexilloligically sound to me.
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We could be celebrating the 100th anniversary of this regimental flag becoming the official state flag if the Legislature had gotten its act together in 1919. But that didn’t happen. What’s new?
A bill officially designating the state flag came up for debate in the Senate in February 1919. But there was a squabble over an amendment changing the wording of the bill to “may be used and displayed as a state emblem.” The amendment failed, but then so did the bill, 30-14.
A Gazette editorial writer happened to be on hand for the debate. The Civil War-tinged state vs. national flag argument apparently came up.
“Seldom had such an opportunity been given Iowa’s solons to make the eagle scream, to wave their arms and tear their hair as they grated, gyrated and figure-eighted with the Stars and Stripes as their subject. Everyone seemed bent on adding something to the other fellow’s eulogy of the flag. It was great fun,” The Gazette opined.
A “state emblem” bill passed the House 84-20 in March 1919. But an effort to bring the measure up in the Senate failed when the Senate president ruled it was too similar to the flag bill defeated earlier. A vote to overturn the ruling failed.
These days, lawmakers would simply tack a state flag amendment to the standings bill.
So Iowa would have to wait. A flag bill passed both the House and Senate and became law on March 29, 1921.
And long may it wave, with its sharp-eyed eagle firmly in possession of our motto-ribbon, its classic French fashion and clear no-mistaken identity red “Iowa.” I wouldn’t change a thing.
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