“In its simplicity, the flag is totally immune to going out of style.”
— Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian
Chicago flag themed gifts seen on display at the gift shop inside of the Chicago History Museum in 2015. (Kristen Norman/for the Chicago Tribune)
Every day in Chicago is Flag Day. Try walking a block on Michigan Avenue without spotting the city’s municipal colors in flag form.
Atop building entrances, on the right upper sleeves of police officers’ uniforms and on the bridge over the Chicago River, Chicago flags fly near their national and state counterparts.
Visitors scoop up the design on T-shirts and other souvenirs, while locals often have it tattooed on their bodies.
It might be hard to believe, but despite its popularity today, the Chicago flag was unrecognizable to the general public almost 60 years ago when the owner of a Portage Park hardware store displayed it. Some mistook it “for everything from the flag of Israel to that of one of the Scandinavian countries,” according to an Aug. 12, 1958, Tribune article.
How did this icon come to be? And what makes its design so popular and respected among flag enthusiasts (including the North American Vexillological Association, which says that next to the flag of Washington, D.C., it’s the best city flag in the U.S.) and laymen alike?
Let’s dissect the flag of Chicago by its colors — red, white and blue.
Francis Davis Millet sketch from the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 27, 1892. (Chicago Tribune archives)
In 1892, with a little more than one month before the dedication of the World’s Columbia Exposition, organizers met with city leaders in a panicked effort to finalize decorations on both the exposition grounds and throughout the city.
Chicago had very little in terms of an official visual idenity — no official colors or iconography, let alone a flag — on which to lean. Published comments from the exposition’s supervisor for painting and sculpture, local mural artist Francis Davis Millet, addressed the issue:
“Almost all European cities have chosen colors, as the universities and colleges have done, and these are called the ‘Municipal Colors.’ Would it not be well now to see if the authorities of Chicago will not select a color or combination of colors as the ‘Municipal Colors’ for the city? If this is done, it will simplify the whole matter of civic decorations very much and afford a precedent which will, I am sure, be followed in all great cities of the Union.” — Millet
Suggested by an architect for the exposition, Alfred Jensen Roewad, red and white was the winning combination. He also submitted several images of how the colors could be displayed, including designs featuring a now familiar Y-shape.
Sketches from the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 1, 1892. (Chicago Tribune archives)
Another contest Wallace Rice. (Chicago Tribune archives)
It wasn’t until 1915 that the city’s lack of a flag became an issue. Ald. James A. Kearns, 31st, introduced a resolution calling for an official design. The City Council agreed with Kearns, who feared Chicago was lagging other major cities, and established the Chicago Municipal Flag Commission.
The commission sifted through more than 1,000 submissions before settling on an original design by writer and flag aficianado Wallace Rice. Coincidentally, Rice was originally retained to set the design rules of the competition.
The designs were submitted and approved by the City Council on April 4, 1917 — the same day the U.S. Senate voted to support U.S. entry into World War I. There were 63 “Yeas” and no dissents.
“White, the union of all the colors, to symbolize the union of all the races in the city of Chicago.” — Rice, Chicago flag designer
Rice’s explanations for each element:
- Top white band: “This white stripe stands locally for the North Side, nationally for the Atlantic Coast, and terrestrially for the countries east and north of the United States.”
- White center band (More than twice as wide as one of the blue bands): “This white bar stands locally for the West Side, nationally for the Great Central Plain dominated by Chicago, and terrestrially for the United States, in which the two stars signify Chicago is the second city, as well as the second city of the New World.”
- Bottom white band: “This white stripe stands locally for the South Side, nationally for the Pacific Coast, and terrestrially for the countries west and south of the United States.”
“Blue, the color of the lake and river, of distant mountains, and of the oceans.” — Rice, Chicago flag designer
Rice’s explanations for each element:
- Upper blue band: “This blue stripe stands locally for the North Branch of the (Chicago) River, nationally for the Allegheny Mountains, and terrestrially for the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes.” Rice also noted, “This stripe, with the other stripe and the two stars (on the original flag), indicates that Chicago is the fourth city of the globe.”
- Lower blue band: “This blue stripe stands locally for the South Branch of the (Chicago) River, nationally for the Rockies and Sierras, and terrestrially for the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.”
The first stars had long, sharp points. Currently, the points are shorter. Why six? When Mayor William Hale Thompson suggested changing the flag’s six pointed stars to five pointers, Rice balked:
“I purposely made the stars six-pointed. Five-point stars are the symbols of states and could manifestly have no place in a municipal flag. Mayor Thompson is making not only himself but the flag ridiculous by ordering the change.” Rice, Chicago flag designer
The original design included two six-pointed stars, each draped with its own symbolism. This left room for additional images. The city flag commission also devised 23 additional logos for various city departments (mayor, City Council, city clerk, etc.), which could be added to the flag, if desired. Each logo would fit into a circle and could displayed by its corresponding office.
Sketch from the Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1921. (Chicago Tribune archives)
Star No. 1
From the original 1917 design
Each star bears a specific meaning, and each of its six points does too. As the Chicago Public Library points out, however, the meaning of the points is mostly unofficial, with explanations varying from different sources. The first two stars from the 1917 edition of the flag are accounted for in City Council records from 1917, but the others are not.
The first star represents the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Points in this star stand for material ideas in which the city was known for or seeking pre-eminence:
- Transportation: “The city being now the greatest railway center in the world.”
- Trade: “Both wholesale and retail, in many features of which the city bears the palm — as grain, mail orders and many more.”
- Finance: “Being the second city in the country and perhaps in the would at this time in bank clearings and banking capital.”
- Labor and industry: “The city’s manufacturers in many lines being favorably known throughout the world.”
- Populousness: “Being already the second city in the Americas and fourth in the world.”
- Healthfulness: “Being the healthiest city of its size on earth.”
Star No. 2
From the original 1917 design
“Taken together, the two stars symbolize the Chicago spirit,” Rice said. He deliberately placed them on the banner’s left so stars could be added to mark events, if approved by the City Council.
Chicago Tribune, Sept 20, 1921. (Chicago Tribune archives)
The second star represents the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Points represent immaterial and spiritual ideals:
- Religion: “Including cathedrals, churches, theological seminaries, schools for missionaries and many institutions of international rank in their respective denominations.”
- Education: “With three universities, several colleges, two technical schools, great libraries on private foundations, in addition to the enormous public school system.”
- Aesthetics: “With the new city plan for its beautification, the Art Institute, the Orchestra Hall and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the attention given architecture, music schools, art schools and much more of that nature.”
- Beneficence: “Shown in hospitals, neighborhood parks, museums, charitable organizations and a hundred other things.”
- Justice: “Exhibited in the Juvenile Courts, the Morals Court, the Court of Domestic Relations and other features in which Chicago has led the world in the application of the most modern methods to the prevention of crime and disorder and the reformation of those under the displeasure of society.”
- Civism: “Or the feeling among our people of the need for good citizenship in order that the city may take first rank in everything of good repute.”
Star No. 3
Added in 1933
On Chicago Day at the 1933 World’s Fair, Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly was to present fair President Rufus C. Dawes with a flag to signify the selection of the event as the third star in the city’s flag. The City Council approved the addition Oct. 11, 1933.
Its points represented Chicago’s global-facing identity:
- The world’s third-largest city.
- “Urbs in Horto,” Latin for “City in a Garden.”
- “I Will,” the city’s motto.
- The Great Central Market.
- The Wonder City.
- The Convention City.
Exterior of Marshall Field & Company showing awnings and doorway, 111 North State Street, 1933. A Chicago flag flying nearby has three stars (Courtesy Chicago History Museum)
Star No. 4
Added in 1939
The fourth star commemorates Fort Dearborn and its points represent the historical development of the Chicago territory:
- French domination, 1693.
- English domination, 1693-1763.
- Territory of the state of Virginia, 1763-78.
- Part of Northwest Territory, 1778-98.
- Part of Indiana territory, 1798-1802.
- Illinois statehood, 1818.
Chicago Tribune, Jan. 6, 1966. (Chicago Tribune archives)
The stars also were reordered chronologically: Fort Dearborn, Great Chicago Fire, World’s Columbian Exposition and Century of Progress.
Historian Kenan Heise, like other Chicagoans, despised the city’s choice to honor the Fort Dearborn “massacre.” “The white Americans encamped at Ft. Dearborn had to do many things wrong to put the Pottawatomies on the warpath, and they did all of them.” He suggested 10 events he felt more deserving of the star, including the engineered reversal of the Chicago River and the founding of Hull House.
A fifth star?
There have been campaigns to add a fifth star to the flag. Suggestions have included: French explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, University of Chicago’s role in the nuclear age, to honor Richard J. Daley and/or Harold Washington, to recognize the Chicago Bulls’ six NBA championships in the 1990s and if the city had been chosen to host the 2016 Olympics. The city began honoring local artists and arts institutions in 2014 with its Fifth Star Awards.
SOURCES: Tribune archives, Chicago City Council Resolution 2015-634 “Commemoration of Honorable James A. Kearns on 100th anniversary of creation of Municipal Flag Commission,” “Chicago Commerce,” April 9, 1915 and April 13, 1917 issues, “American City Flags” by John M. Purcell, Municipal Reference Collection at Chicago Public Library, Chicago Historical Society, Ted Whalen
Created by the Chicago Tribune Dataviz team. On Twitter @ChiTribGraphics
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