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Wednesday, April 26

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This week's question was submitted by Eamon. Thank you!

Q: What do the colors and stars on the City of Chicago flag signify? Also, is it common for a city to have its own flag? I can't for the life of me picture New York's or Los Angeles'.

Thanks again for submitting this question. This is a topic about which I meant to write at the inception of the column but never quite got around to it. So I am happy to have this opportunity to get back to the basics. However, I must point out that the Chicago Public Library has already done a fantastic job of outlining the basic symbolism of the Municipal Flag of Chicago. I am admitting at the outset, then, that the information for this column draws heavily from their work. I am, however, adding additional information where I can.

The Municipal Flag of Chicago was adopted by the city in 1917, based on a design by Wallace Rice, a poet and reporter for the Chicago Herald. If you are interested, you can read several of his poems online, such as "Immortal Flowers." Rice devised the symbolism of the original flag, but the description has been expanded and embellished over the years. Rice's original design, for example, only contained two stars instead of the four stars that grace today's flag. An image of the early flag, along with Rice's explanation of the symbolism, can be seen on this page from the Chicago Historical Society.

In 1913, Rice had also submitted a proposal for the Illinois state flag that was conceptually very similar to his later Chicago flag design. Wallace Rice envisioned a state flag with horizontal stripes of white and blue with 20 blue stars and 1 central white star. The white star symbolized Illinois's position as the 21st state to join the United States. However, the Illinois legislature adopted a different design that, with some minor changes, is still the flag the state has today.

But, to return to the city flag, the Municipal Flag of Chicago consists of three horizontal white stripes divided by two blue stripes. In the central white stripe, there are four six-pointed red stars. (These four stars, by the way, also inspired the design of the Gapers' Block logo.) The stars have six points because, as Wallace Rice explained in 1921, "five pointed stars in the language of flags [stand] for sovereign states." Not only does each stripe and star have its own meaning, but each point of the star also signifies some aspect or quality of Chicago and its citizens.

The stripes of the flag each represent part of the geography of the city. Of the three white stripes, the top stripe represents the North Side of Chicago, the middle white stripe represents the West Side, and the bottom stripe represents the South Side. The blue stripes, on the other hand, remind us of the importance water played in the early growth and industry of the city. The top blue stripe symbolizes both Lake Michigan and the North Branch of the Chicago River while the bottom blue stripe symbolizes the Canal and the South Branch of the river.

Each of the four red stars in the middle of the flag represent a formative event in the history of Chicago. The events can be "read" chronologically from left to right. The first red star symbolizes Fort Dearborn, and the points of this star represent transportation, labor, commerce, finance, populousness and salubrity. This star was not one of the original two from Wallace Rice's design, but was actually the last star added in 1939. The second star symbolizes the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the points of the second star represent religion, education, aesthetics, justice, beneficence and civic pride. The third red star symbolizes the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The points of this star represent the various hands that have laid claim to the land and the changing definition of the area -- France (1693), Great Britain (1763), Virginia (1778), Northwest Territory (1798), Indian Territory (1802), Illinois statehood (1818).

Finally, the fourth star symbolizes the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933. This star was also added later, in 1933. The points of this star each represent a different motto or nickname of Chicago. These include World's Third Largest City, Urbs in Horto (the official city motto), the "I Will" motto, Great Central Market, Wonder City and Convention City.

For more information about the symbolism of the Municipal Flag of Chicago, please visit the Chicago Public Library webpage that includes links to additional historical background on each of the events represented by the four stars. Plus, check out a similar website from the Chicago Historical Society that also examines the history behind the symbolism of the flag's stars.

As to your second question, it is exceedingly common for a city to have its own flag. Although I don't know that it's exactly a requirement, most cities -- even most of Chicago's suburbs -- do seem to have their own flag. Rules and prescriptions for a city's flag are usually codified in the city's Municipal Code. The Chicago Public Library website (again) has excerpts of the sections of the Municipal Code of Chicago describing the Chicago flag.

New York City and Los Angeles do each have their own city flags, but, in my personal opinion, they pale in comparison to the Chicago flag. The Municipal Flag of Chicago is brilliant because it combines simplicity of design with a rich complex of meaning. In contrast, both the New York City flag and the Los Angeles flag (PDF) consist of three vertical stripes with the City Seal in the center. Yawn. I do grant Los Angeles points for being the "Fiesta Flag," but the symbolism and descriptions of either flag show little of the thought or creativity found in the Chicago flag. However, again, this is strictly my personal opinion, so feel free to disagree.

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