Fun with flags

Vermont's flag turns 100 on June 1st, 2023

Fun with flags
Image: Andrew Liptak 
This article was originally published in The Vermont Historical Society's biweekly newsletter History Happenings. To subscribe and learn about what's happening at VHS, head over to our website.

In 1779, Vermont adopted an official seal designed by Ira Allen for use for official state documents, but an official state flag wouldn't come until 1803. Ohio and Tennessee had officially become states, bringing the total number in the Union up to 17. According to Vermont Adjutant General Herbert T. Johnson, writing in the 1951 Vermont Legislative Directory and State Manual, the General Assembly opted to adopt a state militia flag. "It is reasonable to assume," Johnson writes, "that some legislator had in mind that the U.S. flag would continue to have its stars and stripes increased as new states were added, and therefore, adopted for its state flag this flag of seventeen stripes and seventeen stars, and the only thing about it that made it in any way distinctive was the word VERMONT across the top."

That version lasted just a couple of decades. In 1818, Congress instituted some changes to the national flag as the number of states grew, deciding that it would add a new star for each new state while paring back the stripes to 13 to represent the original colonies. In 1837, Vermont legislators followed suit with an updated flag. The new design would feature the same 13 red and white stripes, but it would replace the with the state coat of arms in a single star. The bill passed the General Assembly and was signed into law by Governor Silas Jenison on October 20th.

That flag was used sparingly. "It does not appear," Johnson noted in his history, "that during this entire period between 1837 and 1923, this state flag was never used or displayed to any extent," and that not only were there few flags ever made, but it was generally unknown within the state's population.

In light of that, legislators introduced a bill in 1923 to update the official state flag. According to the Saint Albans Messenger, the General Assembly introduced a bill on February 23rd: H.63, "An act relating to the state flag", which called for blue flag featuring the state's coat of arms.

Where the official state flag was largely unknown, this updated version had a considerable precedence in state history. When Vermont soldiers went off to fight in the Civil War, they marched under regimental flags that often featured variations on the state's coat of arms against a solid-colored backdrop. The 1st Vermont Infantry Regiment used a white flag featuring the coat of arms, as did the 1st Vermont Cavalry, the 2nd Vermont Infantry, 5th Vermont Infantry (Veterans), 6th Vermont Infantry, and others. Interestingly, the 3rd Vermont Infantry's flag seems to have taken its design cues from the second Vermont state flag (with thirteen stripes and a coat of arms in the blue canton, surrounded by stars).

According to Vermont State Curator David Schutz, these flags were made of silk and had their designs painted on by hand, with artists taking some liberties with each design, yielding a number of variations. Following the war, the regimental flags were hung in the Vermont State House, where gravity and visitors took their toll on them until they were removed and preserved. Most reside at the Vermont History Center in Barre in special cases, but four have returned to the State House, where they are on display in the former supreme court chamber (now a work room for legislators.)

This design was seen outside of military circles as well: for years, the state governor was often represented with a blue flag featuring the state's coat of arms, often referred to as the "Governor's Flag", although there was no statute designating it as an official banner on behalf of the office. According to a columnist in the Burlington Free Press in March 1923, "no one seems to know its history. Legal authority for its use appears to be wholly lacking. Sometime, away back in the past, it seems some governor reached the conclusion that it would be desirable to increase the dignity of his appearance at militia musters and field days by having a distinctive flag wave over his escort. Therefore, he ordered a flag made according to his own notions."

A response to that column from Johnson sums up the desire for an updated version of the state flag, “It is now proposed to make the flag with the blue field our state flag that has always been the preferred and used at the head of every regiment of Vermont troops and used by the governor on official occasions. There appears to be no sentiment connected with the present state flag, but I believe there would be with the proposed one as it means something.” The then-present state flag (second iteration), an unnamed columnist points out, “It can scarcely be distinguished from Old Glory. Hanging limp from the shaft the two appear exactly alike.” Moving to a new flag brought Vermonters in line with a number of other states who incorporated their respective coat of arms, and also gave Vermonters a banner that represented them.

The state coat of arms dates back all the way to Ira Allen’s original state seal. It features a 14-branched pine tree representing Vermont’s place as the 14th state to enter the Union, forests, sheaths of wheat and a cow representing the state’s agriculture, the Green Mountains in the background, and the state’s motto, “Freedom and Unity.”

The General Assembly signed off on the bill on March 26, 1923, with an effective date of June 1st, formally cementing the blue flag as the state’s new official flag, a position it has now held for 100 years. In the last century, the flag has represented the state of Vermont at home and abroad. Amongst the flags in the Vermont Historical Society’s holdings are ones that have been carried to the top of Mount Everest (2006), to the North Pole (1970), and to the surface of the Moon (1969 on Apollo 11 and 1972 on Apollo 17). The Vermont state flag was also onboard Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986; it was recovered from the ocean and presented to the state of Vermont.

Flags are one way through which we represent ourselves. It tells the story of our home through symbols and what that story means to us. As Senator Allen Ball notes just before the bill was approved in March 1923, “[it’s a] distinctive flag for a distinctive state (Bennington Evening Banner).