... the study of flags-taking a look behind the banners

by Debbi Collar

Vexillology- a term coined by Dr. Whitney Smith in
The etymology comes from the Greek word "logia"
and Latin "vexillum,"meaning flag.

Photos above are the FIAV (Federation Internationale
des Associations Vexillologiques, Whitney Smith and the
Flag of Guyana).
Photo credits and permission
garnered from  public domain and David F. Phillips.

Whitney Smith's interest in flags was piqued as a youngster
when he received one as a youngster. His fascination  with
the pennants, what led to their creation and the history
behind each of the flags continued throughout his life,
eventually leading to a Flag Research Center, once housed
on Angel Road in Winchester, Massachusetts.  

His collection of files and flags growing so large that it is
now housed in the Dolph Briscoe Center of American
History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Smith has written 27 books-one in which he is most noted
for is entitled " Flags Throughout the Ages and Across
The World."
and He also designed The Flag of Guyana.

Smith's educational background includes a Bachelor's
Degree from Harvard University and a PH.D from Boston
University where he later became a professor of political
science.In 1961 he cofounded The Flag Bulletin
which was dedicated to the study of flags. In 1962 - he
founded The Flag Research Center in Winchester,

Currently there is an organization called NAVA (North
American  Vexillologists Association) - anyone can join.

Recently, Chapter Registrar and Honorary Chapter
Regent of Ranger,Tylene Jousse, Portsmouth New
Hampshire, member of the Daughters of the American
Revolution/Ranger discussed an upcoming June event
in which she was excited to have as a speaker, vexillologist
Tim Gallagher.

Linking the Ranger Chapter's upcoming June event as well
as thoughts of the upcoming ceremonies surrounding the
American Revolution and the term "vexillology," three
experts agreed to be interviewed about what led them to
their ongoing interest in flags and membership in the  
North American Vexillologist Association. The trio are:
David Phillips Trustee of The Flag Heritage Foundation,
author of "The Double Eagle," various articles relating to
heraldry, a researcher, writer, journalist and librarian who
also holds a law degree; Tim Gallagher, a Marine who holds
a degree from Boston Architectural School and has spent
many years assisting companies in crisis as an
InformationalTechnology Technician) and Annie Platoff
(former 1st
Vice President of NAVA and UCSB (University of California,
Santa Barbara-Librarian).

Gallagher in his interview related that "each flag has its own
history. "The same can be said of each NAVA member.  
Each one unique in his or her interest in the study of
the flags and how that interest in vexillology began.

Whether each vexillologist's interest came from a lifelong
passion (Phillips), a colorful  childhood collection of flag
stickers (Platoff) or piecing together Halloween costumes
and quilts (Gallagher), their stories spanned medieval times
to the Space program at NASA. Their stories, knowledge
and insights into flags, the designs of them or the history
and symbolism of numerous flags, has not waned over the

One member, and friend of Dr. Whitney Smith is David F.
Phillips. Although his interest in flags lies more with
"heraldry," he describes vexillology conferences he attends
as "scholarly and several days are devoted to people
reading papers, sharing papers one after another for four
or five days. Phillips is an heraldic scholar, lawyer and
librarian who often finds himself at more of the
internationalconferences as "I am more interested in the
European aspect of it - that's just me." As to his biography
on his website, (www.radbash.com), he describes himself as
"lawyer, retired librarian, Buddhist and harmless eccentric,
born in Delaware in 1944 and living now in San Francisco."

Dr. David Phillips (www.radbash.com), Flag of

photo credit - William Phillips

There is a difference, he says, "between vexillology and
heraldry. Not everyone is happy with the term Smith
coined yet explains that the term "Whitney (Smith) created
and it stuck." In doing so, he also "created an independent
scholar discipline."  

Researchers who access the library learn much from Smith's
files and numerous notes as well as the books he has
authored. There is also another book entitled Good
Flag Bad Flag
authored by Ted Kaye which Phillips
says is interesting, "because it lays out the four of five
elements of what is a good flag design. They are excellent
ideas." Having read the booklet, Phillips recalled the
elements as "keep it simple, it should be able to be
reproduced in crayons by a child, there shouldn't be any
words and it should be limited to two or three colors and
have your symbolism meaningful". Phillips added, "I like to
say the flag is not a resume."

As the discussion continued, Phillips explained that with
the designing of any flag. "Don't quarter it and then put in
symbols of everything you want to symbolize. You wind up
with what the British call a dog's breakfast. Instead," the
principle of a food design would be that it should be able
to be recognized at a distance when flapping in the
breeze." He suggests taking a look at the "flags of
Maryland, which actually happens to be a heraldic manner
and there's not confusing that. It also has the advantages,
look at Hawaii, look at the District of Columbia, these are
all great flags.  They are so simple, clear, visible,
meaningful," and "no words." These are the marks of a
good flag.

As to Phillips' favorite flag, if speaking about a national
one, he points to The flag of Belgium.  The flag is black,
yellow and red. Black beginning at the staff and it's based
on The French Flag but it's done in the heraldic colors. It is
so beautiful and distinctive and so thrilling to see that I
think it is my favorite of all of them. " He also includes The
Flag of Sri Lanka as being "very beautiful."

Another, he says, would be one that he designed, which is
his own flag, "The banner is one of my own (coat of) arms
which you can see on my website (www.radbash.com)

Tim Gallagher holding the third form of the Flag of the
Protectorate (Commonwealth of England, Scotland
and Ireland) between 1658 and 1660.

photo credit Teresa Gallagher and Tim Gallagher

Tim Gallagher, who grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts,
now spends his time in New Hampshire with his wife,
Teresa and delights in talking about his collection of flags.
Many dating back before 1912.

Returning to Gallagher's statement of, "Each flag has its
own history", he refers to a time when flags were used for
action. "In those times, many people were not literate,
therefore pictures or the symbols on flags were followed.
Flags are symbols telling stories.  Flags even existed in
Viking days of early days of warfare. The symbols on flags
would tell the troops what to do, tell legions when to move.
Archers would know when it was time to go up and shoot
their bow and arrows as their flag had arrows on it."

Gallagher's interest in flags came about when he heard
about "an old American flag rolled up in a barn in Bristol,
New Hampshire. Printing at the bottom revealed it's past
history as "The Harrison and Reed flag was for the 1892
election. I believe Reed was the Speaker of the House."

Delving into more research regarding the flag, white
house.gov relates,"Substantial appropriation bills were
signed by Harrison for internal improvements, naval
expansion, and subsidies for steamship lines. For the first
time except in war, Congress appropriated a billion dollars.
When critics attacked "the billion-dollar Congress," Speaker
Thomas B. Reed replied, "This is a billion-dollar country."
President Harrison also signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act
"to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints
and monopolies," the first Federal act attempting to
regulate trusts."  

The discovery in the barn, taking place 20 years ago and
led to his own collection of a combination of over 200
international and 60 original American and other flags. He
has also designed his own flag-representing his family

Not only does Gallagher collect historic flags but he is "a
blue water sailor" who has participated in many open water
races and has "sailed from Bermuda to the British Virgin
Islands."  Also included in his collection are nautical flags,
he says, "to dress the sailboats during holidays."

Neighborhood residents living within the vicinity of
Gallagher's home, watch as various flags are tied
on his yardarm representing where he was traveling.  
"School bus drivers," he says, "often ask about the
flags and tell the children on board what each one

The Flag of America, with its 50 stars and 13 stripes
flies over Ell Pond. The original 13 star design and another
form of the flag with the circular design.

photo credit for 13 star flags-Tim Gallagher.

As to Betsy Ross, true vexillologists relate a different story
than the tale told to many students over past years. "The
American flag evolved. Betsey Ross did not design it.
Instead it is said to have been a Representative in the
Continental Congress. "He (Francis Hopkinson) submitted a
bill to Congress. It wasn't until 1876 that Betsey Ross's
grandson  came up with the story of his grandmother
designing the American flag, according to Gallagher."

The current design of the Flag of America has been the
same now for over 100 years. "Whether old or new,"
Gallagher says, "all American flags are deserving of the
same level of respect."

Gallagher's background also spans a wide variety of
accomplishments. He joined the Marine Corps and served
in the infantry in Vietnam. His educational experience
earned him a degree from Boston Architectural College and
he has had a "45 year career in Information Technology,"
where he "led large International IT organizations."

According to Gallagher, the flag he is holding in the
photo is "the Third Form of the British Union flag had the
Irish Coat of Arms with the Irish harp on top. I read that
Cornwall as lord protector put the Irish shield over the
English and Scottish symbols and made the Irish
predominant. When King Charles took over he corrected
the issue by having the Irish cross and the Scottish cross be
behind the English cross on the British Union flag."

Another of Gallagher's talent's is "being an accomplished
seamstress who designs and makes quilts, Halloween
costumes and flags."

"I knew that I could not get one of these flags so I made
one myself and I fly it on St. Patrick's day to show Ireland is
more prominent (on this particular flag) than England or
Scotland," in its design.

"There are many rules to flag flying and the design of each.
The study, he says, "of each flag is an art within itself."    

L-R Annie Platoff holds the flag she designed. Next to
that photo is the Graham Bartram Flag of Antarctica.

Photo permission from Annie Platoff

The third Vexillologist is Annie Platoff (Web Services
Librarian, Librarian for Geology, Military Science, and Slavic
Studies UCSB Library, University of California, Santa
Barbara). it was a childhood sticker and boxtop collection of
colorful flags led her to NAVA later in life."I remember
collecting flag stickers from cereal boxes and flag patches
that you could get by sending in proofs of purchase from
different products.  It wasn't until I was in college that I
learned about vexillology as the formal study of flags.  I
had purchased a book by Whitney Smith and found
information about NAVA in the forward, Dr. Smith
encouraged me to do research and attend my first NAVA
meeting.I have been a member ever since."

As she looks at flags, there are many more aspects of them
that she and many other vexillologists consider."I have
several areas of focus for both my research and my
collecting activities. My first area of expertise is about how
flags have been used in the U.S. human spaceflight
program. I wrote the official NASA history of the Apollo 11
flag on the Moon. My personal collection includes anumber
of flags related to various aspects of the space program. I
have also collected several small flags that have flown in
space including flags from Gemini 4, Apollo 9, flags that
flew on the space shuttle, and flags that went to the
Russian space station Mir and the International Space

Platoff adds ,"My other area of expertise is on the
flags of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. I have
an extensive collection of Soviet flags and flags from
modern Russia.  In particular, I like to get flags that have
been made in the countries that they represent. I purchase
them when I travel and my friends often bring me back
flags when they travel. My collections includes flags that
have been to every continent, including Antarctica."

Platoff ends with a discussion of the various ways
flags "speak" to people. "I am fascinated by how much
people read into flags. They are certainly more than just
"pieces of cloth." Flags can trigger all sorts of emotions in
people, both good and bad. Think about all the different
contexts in which you see an American flag. Each sends a
different signal. For the most part, you probably don't pay
much attention to the ones you see on flagpoles during the
day. But what about when you are at a sporting event and
the whole crowd is singing the national anthem? You will
certainly have a different reaction if you witness the flag
folding ceremony at a veteran's funeral. And then how do
you feel when you see a picture of someone burning that
same flag as part of a protest? The piece of cloth looks the
same in all those situations. It is the context and how
people are relating to the flag that sends different

The next time you look at any flag, consider taking a
further look behind the banner into its history and its
design. You too may become a vexillologist.


More information can be gathered through NAVA and
various books and journals such as "The Flag Bulletin" and
"The Raven," written by scholars as well as numerous
websites of a variety of NAVA members from around the

April 1, 2016

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