Sure, each one of our nation’s fifty states gets two senators to represent its constituents federally through the legislature, and each state claims an individual vote on amendments to the Constitution. But on matters of the House of Representatives, votes for the Electoral College, budget allocations and just about every other consideration, not all states are created equally. In most respects, the most populous states understandably have the upper hand. Yet, in spite of the fact that nearly one out of eight citizens in the U.S. is a Californian, few would argue that California singlehandedly dominates the political scene. It’s hard to find a better example of this than the fiercely contentious 2016 presidential election, where smaller states clearly punched above their weight class, resulting in another situation where electoral votes determined the winner…not California and New York.
A further example (albeit a much less quantifiable or objective one) where not all states are created equal is in the prominence and quality of their respective iconography. I use the word “iconography” loosely, since it implies visual signifiers, yet the branding to a state can just as easily be auditory—spoken or even sung. But some states have more famous, more memorable, downright catchier songs. Few people I’m aware can hum “I Love You, California”—I know I sure can’t. But old familiar tunes comprise the beloved state songs for Oklahoma, Indiana and Georgia (the latter of which owes its songsmithy to a Hoosier, Hoagy Carmichael). American folk provides the setting for Kansas (“Home on the Range”) and Connecticut (“Yankee Doodle”); Stephen Foster penned Kentucky and Florida, while John Denver provided the sounds that accompany Colorado and West Virginia (or at least one of West Virginia’s; like Massachusetts, Tennessee and New Hampshire, the state has several honorary songs). New Jersey has none. And while the lyrics to Maryland are hardly well known, the tune drifts in and out of retail loudspeakers every December; the state uses “O Tannenbaum” as the melody.
Mottos, birds, flowers, seals—for whatever reason, some states’ respective brands achieve much higher visibility or prestige. Few, though, get as much discussion as flags, for which the niche study of vexillology exists to judge flags that are particularly good or bad. It might not seem like an objective science, but clearly we brandish some flags far more memorably the others. Vexillologists would argue that the careful positioning of colors, shapes and symbols helps some flags function more effectively than others. Their fundamental flag-ness is superior. And, in this case, the Maryland flag seems to reign supreme, at least among all the northeastern states. I blogged about it many years ago. (I also touched upon those state songs in that same blog post.)
So, without clicking on my previous article, do you know the Maryland flag? Chances are, you’re more familiar with it than you might expect, but this time it’s not about seeing it on canvas. I found an unusual variant of flag so beloved of Marylanders, at a highway rest stop:
There it is…on a pair of flip flops and a zipper bag. Recognize it now? How can you not? It’s a good flag, with an audacious color scheme—the only one evocative of English heraldry.
I explained the history a few years ago, but what’s telling about the flag in this context is that none of the tchotchkes at this rest stop comprise an actual flag. Instead, we see the Maryland flag emblazoned on beach apparel. And, to top it off, we’re not even in Maryland! This rest area is in Delaware. Granted, it’s just a few miles east of the Maryland border, but still…I don’t see the flag for Delaware on flip-flops, nor New Jersey, or Pennsylvania or any other neighboring states, for that matter.
The Maryland flag is simply better. It’s distinctive without being so bogged down with graphics that it loses its impact. A Maryland flag could flap furiously in the wind and you’d still know exactly what it is without really scrutinizing. Compare that to the state flag where I took these photos:
Ho hum. Truth be told, most of the neighboring states look like Delaware. And that’s the problem. The Delaware flag (like New Jersey and Pennsylvania and so many others) appropriates the state seal and slaps it on a dull blue field. The brain cannot process the details quickly enough, which dulls the flag’s impact. Within two seconds, the average viewer can identify the Maryland flag; from a semiotic perspective, it’s just a more powerful brand. And the color scheme pervades onto flip-flops, swimming trunks, bikini tops…you name it. It stops seeming like a subjective judgment after awhile; the Maryland flag really is just better, and Marylanders know it.
Just so Marylanders’ heads don’t get too big over this, we have to recognize that, elsewhere in the country (particularly out West) we find flags that most vexillologists would say give Maryland a run for its money. Take Texas for example—perhaps the most famous flag of them all.
It’s as good of a flag as Maryland. After all, as distinctive as Maryland might be, the imagery is also busy and convoluted. A truly great flag should be so simple (according to vexillologists) that a five-year-old could reasonably recreate it from memory after seeing it for ten seconds. I don’t imagine most small children could do this with Maryland, but they could with Texas. Colorado is pretty great too. So is Arizona. A literal child won the competition to create the Alaska flag, resulting in one of the all-time best for both its simplicity and ability to evoke the essence of the nation’s northernmost state. But I place my money on the flag of New Mexico: just two colors but it captures the essence of the state wonderfully, while looking like no other. It’s unmistakable.
Still, Maryland can rest on its laurels. After all, it’s effectively promoting itself in another state’s rest area, more powerfully than Delaware can dream of. What does Delaware have to call its own?
At this gift shop, it’s got the name “Delaware”, on some equivalent beach-time paraphernalia. Not bad, I guess, but Washington DC has a stronger visual brand, with the Capitol building and Washington Monument just to the right of the hot-pink Delaware bag. And DC has a much better flag too; just as powerful of a brand for the District as Maryland’s. Sad to say—and I’d imagine even the locals will admit this—the Delaware brand is pretty weak; Wayne and Garth recognized this over a quarter century ago. The state suffers enough obscurity due to its small size and relatively low population. And now garish Maryland out-blings Delaware in Delaware’s own (admittedly very clean and welcoming) welcome center.
Well, at least the Delaware beaches are pretty great. But that’s subjective. And there’s no science to gauging the quality of beaches. Then again…