The North American Vexillological Association (NAVA) wrapped its 47th annual conference this past weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Vexillology” is the study of flags, and flag experts from all around the United States and Canada gathered to hear presentations covering new research, move the business of the group forward and celebrate the organization’s founding father, Dr. Whitney Smith. According to wiki, Smith coined the term “vexillology” in his 1958 article, Flags of the Arab World.
NAVA was formed in 1967 and is a bi-national, non-profit organization that has published 20 issues of its academic organ—Raven: A Journal of Vexillology.
Presentations at the annual event included: Flags of North Korea by Dean Thomas, Ancient Israeli Standards by Marilyn Hichborn, and The Hawaiian Flag Has Always Been White, Red, & Blue by Patrick Ka’ano’i. NAVA First Vice-President, Gus Tracchia, MC’d the presentations with Dean Thomas’s North Korea paper receiving recognition from the board by garnering this year’s “Driver Award.”
Robert Williamson, Chairman of the House of Flags in North Carolina, presented a treasure-trove of research and primary source documentation on the evolution of the U.S. presidential flag in his paper, Exploring the Genealogy of the President’s Flag. His colleague Chuck Douglas displayed an exceedingly rare 49-star incarnation of the President’s flag from the Eisenhower administration.
Williamson shared an interesting fact: After WWII and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, President Harry Truman changed the Eagle on the President’s flag to face the Olive Branch of Peace held in one of the Eagle’s talons—as opposed to the talon holding the “arrows of war.” As part of his redesign, Truman had wanted to morph the “arrows of war” into bolts of lightning to reflect the new atomic age and America’s capacity to wield the most destructive weapons ever devised—he was eventually told by a fellow Missourian, “Harry, that’s a damn fool idea”—or something to that effect. Consequently, the conventional arrows stayed and the bolts of lightning were left on the cutting room floor. When I asked Williamson what bolts of lightning had to do with harnessing the destructive power of the atom, he replied, “In 1945, they didn't know what they had; nobody understood what the A-Bomb really was.”
Steven Knowlton’s paper, Flags of the New World Slave Risings, covered secondary sources detailing the various banners and flags that slave uprisings utilized in the late 18th and early 19th century. Many of the devices featured elements communicating a new sense of empowerment as people in bondage painfully shucked-off shackles of misery and oppression by violently opposing their former masters. Some of the messaging included a harrowing slogan in French saying: “Death to all whites.”
Revitalizing Flag Magic by Scot Guenter, Professor of American Studies and the Coordinator of American Studies at San Jose State University, covered the anthropological aspects of flag worship and reverence acting as “spiritual talismans” connecting us, and imbibing us, with an augmented sense of purpose and meaning in life. He compared the emotional attachment to flags with documented adulation and veneration given to religious relics and icons supposedly imbued with magical powers and properties. He summarized this parallel by describing flag worship and reverence as a sort of “civil religion.”
Flags as Flair by Annie Platoff from the University of California, Santa Barbara, gave an engaging presentation on the various designs of Space Shuttle mission patches. Platoff unpacked the meaning of copious quantities of symbolism included on the many mission patches worn by shuttle astronauts. Flag elements, national and international symbolism, star patterns and artistic impressions of different operations that any particular mission might employ were common features on these patches—or what Platoff referred to as “flair.” Platoff has a contagious delivery and was recently recognized as the first woman to be named a fellow of the international flag umbrella, the International Federation of Vexillological Associations (FIAV). Charles "Kin" Spain, an appellate attorney and judge from Houston, Texas, shared this news from FIAV's recent 25th International Congress of Vexillology held in Rotterdam, Netherlands on August 4-10, 2013.
One of the most knowledgeable flag experts in attendance was Jim Ferrigan hailing from Reno, Nevada. Ferrigan is a consultant for auction houses and other antique collectors interested in acquiring the various “Holy Grails” in vexillology—flags that, due to their extreme rarity, command prices as high as $5M. One of his areas of focus is revolutionary war flags which are very, very rare. These antiques, in their day, were quickly worn out and usually considered disposable, as Ferrigan described, “[flags]...are ephemeral things.” Consequently, there are hardly any surviving specimens.
Of note, was an old hand sewn Grand Union flag that was the cause of great controversy due to being overpriced, misidentified or both. The Grand Union was the first flag of America featuring thirteen red-and-white stripes with a British Union in the "canton," or corner of the flag. This particular specimen “sold” at auction for over $150,000 dollars, but evidently the sale didn't go through when unnamed experts questioned the item's value. There are quite a few stories like this, with collectors often running around in circles, and, most likely, hoaxers concocting a kaleidoscope of various techniques to fool them. I get the impression that Ferrigan holds flag collecting to heart and is a sort of “guardian at the gates” of various transactions, protecting collectors and vexillology, in tandem.
I presented on the aforementioned first flag of America—the Grand Union flag—in a paper entitled, Revisiting the Flag at Prospect Hill: Grand Union or just British? In it, I reprise several historical discoveries I made in 2012 and 2013 that were published widely including the earliest documentary evidence of the phrase, “United States of America,” and as-yet-unpublished research uncovering the potential progenitor to the modern “military industrial complex.” Revisiting the Flag also explores business connections between key American leaders and officers in the East India Company, whose flag is nearly identical to the Grand Union. This work was stimulated by a 2006 article by Peter Ansoff entitled, The Flag on Prospect Hill which questions the traditional history of Gen. George Washington raising the first flag of America on New Year’s Day, 1776 on Prospect Hill.
Other presentations included Historical Flags of Our Ancestors by Pete Loeser, Storage of Collections by Gwen Spicer and the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics by Paul Swenson. Swenson owns Colonial Flag in Salt Lake City and shared a moving film about numerous “Healing Fields” that were built in many cities post-911 displaying the approximately 3000 individual flags each representing a victim from that tragic day.
NAVA president Hugh Brady at the organization’s gala "Whitney Smith dinner" shared the exciting news about the transfer of a massive vexillological collection from Smith’s Flag Research Center in Winchester, Massachusetts to the University of Texas in Austin. The humongous collection was gathered as a lifetime project by Smith and reportedly filled two large tractor trailers with more than a thousand boxes. Brady assured the NAVA attendees that this collection will be arranged, categorized and made available for the global vexillological community to augment their studies and research.
Humanity thrives on symbols and stories; and banners waving in the wind summon the most emotionally connected attachment to these symbolic icons. The passion, attention and love expressed toward flag study and flags in general by this talented group was something to behold—NAVA is a growing group, and, evidently, each year the scholarship elevates to higher levels of expression and quality. John Hartvigsen, who presented The Flag’s Own Right, was in charge of the conference, and along with the rest of the NAVA board, did an excellent job of producing a high-class, informative and inspirational event.