Ranking the 50 State Flags
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Flags are a way for states to identify themselves in a crowded field and should hopefully reflect the virtues and characteristics of the territory they represent. Some have done better than others.
Over the years, states have tweaked their flags with some going as far as to commission complete overhauls (looking at you, Georgia). Others have kept the same logo since the mid 19th Century. Some are riffs on Old Glory, many are simply the state seal on a solid background and others are confounding in their lack of artistic attention.
If you were curious, there is a scholarly organization dedicated to U.S. and Canadian flag theory. It's called the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) and it's kind of a big deal.
Here are our rankings of the 50 state flags along with the year the present version was officially adopted.
50. Hawaii, 1845
What. The. Hell. Hawaii. The Union Jack? Really? Granted the flag was officially adopted in 1845 and Hawaii was still an independent kingdom during the Revolutionary War, but the Aloha State could have rethought the design upon being admitted to the Union in 1959.
49. Mississippi, 1894
The last state to still incorporate the Confederate flag in its official state flag. This is actually the third version of the state flag and all have featured the Stars and Bars similarly prominently.
48. Georgia, 2003
Georgia falls near the bottom of the rankings despite really trying to please. A study by the NAVA in 2001 ranked Georgia's then flag as the worst design. They promptly changed the flag, yet it still fell flat leading to further alterations in 2003.
47. Ohio, 1902
We said "flag," Ohio. Not burgee. This swallowtail design it the only non-rectangular state flag and therefore fails at being a flag.
46. Arkansas, 1924
This looks like the logo on a mid-century oilcan the guys from American Pickers would be super excited about finding. Arkansas played around with the same design only with one star above the state name and two below and then two stars above and below before nailing it with one star above and three below.
45. Tennessee, 1905
Simply re-appropriating the symbols and colors on the American flag shows a lack of creativity. And, if you thought the random blue bar on the end was an odd choice, you're correct. It really doesn't serve any symbolic value. Take it from the flag's designer, Colonel LeRoy Reeves: "The final blue bar relieves the sameness of the crimson field and prevents the flag from showing too much crimson when hanging limp." Designing your flag with "limpness" in mind doesn't really inspire allegiance.
44. North Carolina, 1991
North Carolina basically took the Texas flag, flipped the red and white part and put an "N" and "C" on either side of the star to clear up any confusion. With two seemingly random dates included (the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the Halifax Resolve) the flag looks like it could also work as a headstone.
43. Florida, 1985
Florida will say that its flag is a shout-out to the original Spanish settlers and the Cross of Burgundy, but considering the flag's adoption date and the state's proximity to Alabama it's possible the design was "borrowed." Plus, we already saw how Florida simply co-opted the motto of the United States as its own.
42. Alabama, 1895
The saltire is an oft-used symbol on flags and represents the cross on which St. Andrew was martyred which seems like a particularly painful way to go and an odd symbol to represent a state.
41. Washington, 1923
Washington clearly waited until the last minute to turn in their flag proposal and then just threw the most obvious idea on a green screen and forgot to ever replace the background. F-, Washington.
40. Iowa, 1921
Throwing a bald eagle on the French tricolor doesn't seem like something that would stoke state pride. Plus, an eagle without visible talons is just a brown seagull.
39. Nevada, 1991
This may have been a printing mistake, but it appears that the image is slightly off-center. And, nothing says "Battle Born" like flowering sagebrush.
38. Texas, 1933
The Lone Star Flag gains ground because it is so revered in Texas. But, again, no awards for originality (though better than North Carolina). Red, white and blue with stars. Sounds familiar.
37. Connecticut, 1897
Connecticut being the hotbed of viticulture that it is, the flag features three grapevines with three bunches of grapes on each and the state's Latin motto that translates to, "He who transplanted still sustains." The Land of Steady Habits seems to have one habit it might want to keep an eye on. Bunch of winos.
36. Rhode Island, 1897
Rhode Island gets props for originality and color scheme. After looking at the majority of the state banners you'd think flag printers only had three colors to choose from.
35. Indiana, 1917
Is this a flag or Urban Outfitter's latest collection of vintage t-shirts celebrating past Summer Olympics?
34. Nebraska, 1963
Grab your magnifying glass if you want to figure out what's happening on this flag. There's a train, a house and...is that an elephant by the river? This flag could benefit from a broader color spectrum.
33. West Virginia, 1929
At first glance, you might think West Virginia is just really into Christmas. But those are rhododendrons, not holly bushes. West Virginia is also the birthplace of The Man in the Yellow Hat.
32. Idaho, 1890
Supposedly a miner, the male figure on the Idaho state flag looks more like a boy scout. He appears to be building some structure out of mud that is also about to ruin his horn of plenty.
31. Montana, 1981
If you need to write the name of the state on your flag then you've failed to really pick a design that distinguishes itself. And what's with the crudely drawn caricatures of tools? That shovel is bigger than the butte.
[RELATED: Ranking the State Mottos]
30. Illinois, 1969
A bald eagle puking out Illinois' state motto while clutching the Untied States' shield is pretty hardcore patriotic. The flag loses points though due to the weird renderings of bird hair, waves and grass shoots. Plus, the white background is gonna show dirt.
29. Kansas, 1961
Finally, a state seal that doesn't require squinting. Vibrant, whimsical and possibly from a children's coloring book.
28. Massachusetts, 1971
Not sure what the message is here. An Algonquian Native American stands stoically with an arrow pointed downwards symbolizing peace and LOOKOUT! THERE'S A BROADSWORD ABOUT TO TAKE YOUR HEAD OFF!
27. Minnesota, 1983
Wow. This is like abstract art with neon paint. A naked Native American in a chullo hat rides a hoof-less horse with a flaming red mane and tail across a field being hand-tilled by some poor sap with no shoes who has managed to germinate an Easter egg tree.
26. New Hampshire, 1931
As previously mentioned, flags with the state seal are often crammed and difficult to decipher. New Hampshire's is colorful and clear. The sun is rising and the seal is surrounded by a laurel wreath, symbolizing fame, honor and victory. The ship, the USS Raleigh, was one of the first ships sponsored by the American Navy. It apparently ran aground in New Hampshire.
25. South Dakota, 1992
Some states jump in the rankings based on how painful a tattoo of the flag would be. Is the farmer wearing a vest? Are those teepees? The detail on South Dakota's flag is astounding and would necessitate several trips to the tattoo chair.
24. Michigan, 1911
Here's another one that appears to be from elementary school art class. The eagle's talons are wildly disproportionate and it may or may not be wearing breeches. The stag and moose hold a banner featuring a mountain man beckoning them to come forth. They seem dubious. He's got a gun.
23. Vermont, 1923
Most state seals feature people. Vermont's looks to represent some animal utopia where the deer rule and there's wheat a plenty for all beasts of the earth.
22. North Dakota, 1943
Runner-up in the Best Use of Bald Eagle category, NoDak's flag features the bird of prey carrying an olive branch, a bundle of arrows and an American flag shield. Choose wisely lest ye want an arrow through the eye. The perspective is a little off on the bird, however. It's hard to tell if you're looking at the torso or the back.
21. Utah, 2011
Utah wins the Best Use of Bald Eagle category. The massive bird — the dominant image and draped in the Star-Spangled Banner — holds up the state shield with talons full of arrows at the ready. Also, BEES!
20. New Jersey, 1896
There's a scene in The Godfather where a Hollywood film producer refuses a casting request by Vito Corleone. He wakes up with a severed stallion head in his bed. This scene was apparently inspired by the New Jersey state flag where a disembodied equine dome floats over what could be beheading devices.
19. Pennsylvania, 1907
Clearly, there is no universal way to depict a bald eagle on a flag. Pennsylvania's looks like it's about to give a feathery hug. Thankfully, this show of goodwill is offset by two murderous looking draft horses.
18. New York, 1901
This is an imposing flag. Lady Liberty unceremoniously stands upon a crown while thrusting forth a Phrygian cap — otherwise know as a freedom cap — on a pole. Lady Justice is also there, with scales and a sword! Then there's an eagle straight from a Roman standard perched majestically atop a globe.
17. Delaware, 1913
Dudes in Delaware seem pretty chill. Chimneysweep, soldier, oxen; all are welcome in the Blue Bonnet State.
16. Maine, 1909
If Delaware's two dudes chillin' on a flag were a little too uptight up for your liking, maybe Maine is more your speed. Shirt buttons are optional and even the moose are casual.
15. Wisconsin, 1981
Wisconsin kicked the typical bald eagle off the top of their state seal, opting for the badger, which is a pretty fierce creature in its own right. An old-timey sailor with rope and miner with pickaxe complete this labor-centric tribute.
14. Maryland, 1904
Maryland might have the most unorthodox flag. They looked at the state seal on a blue background or the red, white and blue with stars designs and decided to not just think outside the box, but actually "tear it up." With a bizarre color scheme and a pattern that would make madras blush, Maryland's flag is actually homage to the first Lord Baltimore.
13. Oklahoma, 2006
The current Oklahoma flag is the fifth attempt at hammering out the state's colors. Previous versions were dull or slightly blurry. The flag features a traditional Osage Nation buffalo-skin shield with eagle feathers, peace pipe and olive branch.
12. Missouri, 1913
Missouri sees your boring tricolor flag, Netherlands, and raises you two burly grizzly bears. Three bears actually. The bears hold a seal featuring ANOTHER BEAR!
11. Oregon, 1925
Oregon gets bonus points for having the only two-sided flag. The front is so-so with the state name written in a questionable font and a Conestoga wagon just like the one you lost (along with a set of clothes) while trying to ford the Green River in Oregon Trail. But, the back is where the flag shines featuring a regal beaver, gold and rotund.
10. Kentucky, 1918
A statesman and a frontiersman congratulate each other on a job well done on the Kentucky state flag. Popular belief is that the figures represent early buckskin-adoptee, Daniel Boone, and political suit, Henry Clay. The motto, United We Stand, Divided We Fall, encircles them. Though, if push comes to shove, the smart money is on Boone...
9. Colorado, 1964
The Colorado "C" flag has been co-opted to hype everything from skiing to legalized marijuana and is an oft-tattooed design. The blue represents the skies, the gold the ample sunshine the state receives and the white the snowcapped mountains.
8. Arizona, 1917
A brilliant copper star represents the Grand Canyon State and its rich mining history. It also might have been a precursor to NBC's "The More You Know" campaign.
7. New Mexico, 1920
Like Maryland, New Mexico avoided the typical flag seals and colors and chose to honor their Native American and Spanish roots. The emblem is the red sun symbol of the Zia people. This flag thankfully took the place of New Mexico's previous flag that resembled a clichéd tourism bureau post card.
6. South Carolina, 1861
Another flag that is displayed with great pride. A serene scene featuring a crescent moon and palmetto tree represents the Sandlapper State and also encourages heavy Corona consumption.
5. Alaska, 1927
Both a flag and a map, Alaska's banner is packed with symbolism. The Big Dipper, or Ursa Major, represents the state's large bear population and also points to Polaris allowing amateur navigators to determine true north, the way to Alaska.
4. Virginia, 1950
If you had any difficulty in translating Virginia's motto – Sic Semper Tyrannis – just take a gander at their flag. A plebeian wielding a spear and sword (or is that a wrench...?) stands atop a vanquished tyrant, his crown cast aside. Don't mess with Virginia.
3. Wyoming, 1917
A big old buffalo adorns the Wyoming state flag. He's been branded with the state seal that depicts a gun-toting cowboy and pickaxe-wielding miner. Lady justice oversees the scene.
2. California, 1911
Bears are a popular flag animal. California's, though, has some history. It's claimed to be based on the last Californian grizzly bear in captivity, caught by a newspaper reporter at the bidding of William Randolph Hearst. After it died in 1911, it was preserved and now resides at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
1. Louisiana, 2010
It might not come across on first glance, but the "pelican and her piety" is a pretty graphic scene. A massive pelican pierces her own chest to feed her brood with the blood that spills out. Those chicks are gonna grow up to be killers.
Matt Sandy has been living in and writing about Denver since 2007. He writes about beer for various publications.
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