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When Americans redesigned the American flag

In the 1950s, thousands of Americans wrote to President Eisenhower with their own ideas for new flag designs.

Almost 60 years ago, the United States government changed the design of its flag for the last time, adding a 49th and then a 50th star for Alaska and Hawaii. The final design the Eisenhower administration ran up the flagpole on July 4th, 1960 was practical; it simply shifted from regular lines of stars to staggered rows. It was also the least imaginative option, since, for years before the new flag was chosen, Americans had been submitting their own–completely unsolicited–ideas for a new flag to the federal government.

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Today, it’s a curious footnote to American history: the fact that more than 3,000 Americans across the country had–of their own volition–sent in their own designs for the new flag, as the Eisenhower government prepared to select a new flag design to accommodate the two new stars in the late 1950s.

Sometimes people sent in actual flags with their proposed changes. One design, by one Harold Brown of Los Angeles, replaced the stars with the emblem of the then-nascent United Nations. Other times they sent in hand-made mock-ups. “This was an especially popular project for elementary school children who expressed their ideas with construction paper, crayons, tempera paint, and tiny stick-on stars,” the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library notes. Some incorporated slogans, like “From the state that is large, to the one that is small, all fifty offer peace and goodwill to one and all,” or the Latin “Sine Metu,” or “without fear.” Other designs reflected the strong iconography of the era, like Washington, D.C.’s J. Osowoski, who proposed putting the stars against a blue continent undergirded by red stripes.

[Photo: Atelier Editions]

Many of the designs saw the light of day for the first time in 2016, when the publisher Atelier Éditions put out a large-format book of the submissions called Old Glory. “Officially no competition for the flag’s design then was ever enacted by the Eisenhower administration, although of course such patriotic flag-making was wholly encouraged, [except by] many irate American flag manufacturers, who now possessed thousands of obsolete 48- and 49-starred American flags,” Atelier Éditions’ Kingston Trinder told Co.Design at the time.

This week, Atelier Éditions announced a fundraiser for the book through July, when 20% of proceeds will go to the American Civil Liberties Union.

[Photo: Atelier Editions]

The designs can feel almost transgressive to our eyes, partially because it’s been a generation since the flag changed at all and partially because of the way the flag is wielded by political groups today. Especially this year, it can be hard to know how to think about American symbols like the flag–the perceived disrespect of which has become a favorite grievance of the current administration (and the NFL). How do you celebrate independence on a day when a sitting president rails against core constitutional tenets? What does it mean to be a proud American, when the definition of American is being narrowly restricted and policed in increasingly arbitrary ways at the behest of a ruling political party? The artist Ekene Ijeoma, writing in the Architect’s Newspaper this week, suggests getting more engaged with American symbols and how we use them. “It’s time to repurpose some of these flag codes to create more nationwide visibility, solidarity, and accountability for issues like police brutality or, furthermore, reimagine American symbols like the flag,” he concludes.

These decades-old flags, cobbled together by grade-schoolers and engaged citizens during an era when American democracy was being reaffirmed after World War II, look almost naive from 2018. Yet they’re also a welcome reminder that participation–and creative action–are their own tools.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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