Chicago Flag Turns 100

You could argue that every day in the city is Chicago Flag Day. The iconic design is emblazoned on mugs, posters, T-shirts, caps, cookies and even human limbs – in the form of tattoos.

But this week, the flag gets a special shout-out, thanks to Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), who introduced a resolution designating April 4 as Chicago Flag Day. It was passed at a March 29 City Council meeting.

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The timing couldn’t be better.

On April 4, 1917, the city of Chicago officially adopted its municipal flag, the features of which represent Chicago’s historical events and prized natural resources.

The flag’s iconic design has evolved since the Chicago writer Wallace Rice first introduced it 100 years ago. More recently, the flag was ranked second in a survey of 150 U.S. city flags by the North American Vexillological Association – vexillology is the study of flags.

There’s more behind what meets the eye: The flag’s three white lines represent—in top-down order—the city’s North, West and South Sides. The middle West Side band is more than twice as wide as one of the blue bands.

The two blue lines stand for different parts of the Chicago River: the top signaling the North Branch, and the bottom representing the river’s South Branch.

And the four six-pointed red stars at the flag’s center symbolize historic events in Chicago’s past. From left to right, the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933. The last star to be added, which commemorates Fort Dearborn, was actually placed in front of the Great Chicago Fire star, and thus commencing the line of stars.

On Tuesday, we take a look at the history and popularity of the Chicago flag.

Below, a Q&A with John Hartvigsen, president of the North American Vexillological Association.

What do you think of the Chicago flag?

John Hartvigsen: It’s a beautiful flag. As a matter of fact, it’s the only city flag that I own in my collection. It’s flying today over my home, and I’m just very excited about its 100th birthday.

Where do you think it stacks up among other flags of U.S. cities?

Hartvigsen: We don’t really rank them as an association. We did have a poll over nine years ago, but that was a snapshot in time. It had both Washington, D.C., and Chicago up at top of the list, and they’re both excellent designs, just looking at the design. But when you look further into the history and the symbolism, I think that the Chicago flag is probably my favorite.

What does Chicago’s flag say about the city?

Hartvigsen: Well one thing I like about it, it’s similar to the American flag in that it has grown with the city, and so it’s not just static like someone came up with at one point in time. The flag of Washington, D.C., for example, is from the family code of arms, called George Washington, but that doesn’t really say anything about the modern city, just about the founder’s name.

Chicago’s flag has developed with Chicago with the addition of each star, and that has brought a resonance, I think, with the people of Chicago that is really noteworthy. You see it everywhere: it works well on flags, but also t-shirts and hats and even down to cuff links or lapel pins, and it’s a beautiful flag and it’s well accepted by the people of Chicago, which is the most important thing.

Do you think a fifth star will be added in the future?

Hartvigsen: By history, that would happen. I kind of like the way it looks now, but that’s up to the people of Chicago and is up to what happens in Chicago history, if there’s another event that is of equal significance to the advance indicated by the other four stars.

Why do the people of Chicago treasure the flag so much?

Hartvigsen: It’s a bold, beautiful design, but beyond that, it has history going back to Fort Dearborn and important events. It’s grown with the city, it’s displayed everywhere. So even for the people who don’t understand the history or the symbolism of the flag have grown to love it, and they recognize it immediately, and it’s just bringing everything together to make it a really memorable and beloved flag.

As someone who studies flags, what makes the Chicago flag so great?

Hartvigsen: Even in design, there are some interesting things. For instance, it has a symmetry that’s horizontal and vertical. That means if you fold the flag in half, the top part of the flag and the bottom half are mirror images of one another. The same thing if you fold it in half lengthwise, you get the same thing. That’s very important because the Chicago flag cannot be flown upside-down, and it cannot be flown backwards. It’s a design that calls out no matter where it is, and it’s recognizable, and so the people love it.

Additional comments?

Hartvigsen: I’m just excited about its 100th anniversary. You know, that’s its history—it goes back 100 years. It has grown with Chicago, it has symbolism to represent Chicago, everything about the flag says Chicago, and Happy Birthday! It’s a wonderful flag. 

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