In today's common knowledge, many assume vexillology is merely "the study of flags." In a very broad and general sense, this is true. Deeper than that, the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) defines the word as a "scientific study of the history, symbolism, and usage of flags." The rules of flag design are easy to remember:
- Simple: A child should be able to draw it from memory.
- Use only 2 or 3 colors.
- No lettering or numbers of any kind. (Flags are seen from 2 sides. Alphanumeric elements will only look correct on 1 side and backwards on the other.)
- Be Distinctive and/or Unique
- Be Related. Use Symbolism
As easy as this list might seem to follow, plenty of flags flown around the country today break one or more of these rules. Just look at any of the 50 state flags for plenty of these rule-breaking examples.
But who's to say a flag design is good or bad? Considering the power a flag has when waved over the population it represents, any flag can easily be seen as a symbol. And like with any symbol, icon, or logo, the rules of branding and marketing can also apply. One concept known as "brand loyalty" is considered the ultimate aim of every marketing team on the planet. Recall a time you were grocery shopping for something you needed but the store you were in didn't have the exact brand you usually buy. An example of brand loyalty is you leaving the store empty handed rather than picking up some other "off-brand" version from the shelf.
Here in Chicago, anywhere you look you'll see elements of the city's flag on everything from stickers to statues. To say its citizens are loyal to the flag's symbols is an understatement. There's even a website dedicated to those that love the city so much, they wanted its primary symbol permanently marked onto their skin.
THE CHICAGO FLAG:
On a white flag, two blue rectangles run horizontally, creating 5 stripes alternating blue to white. Even though blue and white colors could represent the cold Chicago winters, they truly repesent Chicago's physical geography. Resting on the shores of Lake Michigan, the 3 white stripes are the "north, west, and south" sides of the city. The blue stripes of blue referencing Chicago's waterways. (if you're visiting, take the boat tour downtown and ride the Chicago rivers into Lake Michigan!)
Running horizontally in the middle of Chicago's flag are 4 six-pointed red stars, each representing a significant event in the city's 100+ year history. A fun piece of trivia, the original Chicago flag only had 2 stars (and the city's residents are often present ideas for a fifth). The 6 points of each star is just an attempt to be different as many sovereign states usually use five-pointed stars.
The original historical events were to represent the Great Chicago Fire and The World's Fair. Then in the 1930s, the other 2 stars were added, changing the symbolism to Fort Dearborn, the Great Chicago Fire, and two Expositions.
If you're downtown, look for bronze markers on the sidewalk at the intersection of Michigan Ave and Wacker Drive. This is where Fort Dearborn was located in 1803; at the south bank of the Chicago River. That piece of land was the first major investment by the federal government and was the Westernmost outpost for the U.S. Army.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is an event that resulted in 2,100 acres of the city literally being burnt to rubble over a period of 3 days. While the cause of the fire is unknown, the address of the fire's origin is today a Chicago fire department training facility. Another fun piece of trivia: at the time, Chicago stopped at Michigan Ave. Since the city's workers didn't know what to do with the rubble from the fire, they just pushed it into Lake Michigan. There was so much debris, they expanded the city an extra mile. Even to this day, the space between Michigan Ave and the lake was created from this one event.
The remaining two stars represent the two times Chicago Hosted the World's Fair. The first, the World's Columbian Fair in 1893 and second, the 1933-34 Century of Progress Expo. A world's fair is like a global "show and tell" event that lasts several months. Nations come together for each fair and demonstrate how modern and sophisticated their country has evolved. The Columbian Fair in 1893 was just 20 years after the Great Chicago Fire and was used to re-introduce Chicago as a "Second City." The "Century of Progress" Expo in the 30s showcased "modern" entertainment and consumerism.
It might be hard to believe so much history is packed into such a simple and minimal design, which is what makes the Chicago flag one of the country's best designed. As you move through the city be sure to keep an eye out for the flag's symbols and colors.
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