I’m a little late for flag day, but I have been collecting images of flags that fly over Scranton (or, rather, over certain houses mostly in my neighborhood in Scranton). Mine is not a political screed attempting to interpret the motives of the flag-flyers in a bad light but rather an expression of genuine interest in this local phenomenon.
Many of the flags are from the revolutionary period, but they are not to be attributed to, for example, Tea Partiers without further thought. Some folks will surely fly these old flags as a political statement but none must be. In Virginia I had the Gadsden flag license plate, which has been adopted by the sort of people who attacked the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. But for my part, I like the snake design; it was the only Historickall license plate on offer in Virginia; and I would do anything to avoid the improbable and nauseating “Virginia is for Lovers” tagline on my license plate. Gah. Still, better than a URL.
The Scranton burgher who flies the 15-star and 15-stripe Ft. McHenry flag wins hands down for the most recondite choice (figure 1). I stared at this flag last summer for a long minute trying to figure out what was wrong with it (of course I saw the stars and knew it was old) until I intuited, and then counted, the unusual number of stripes.
Fort Moultrie defended Charleston harbor in South Carolina—hence the crescent moon on its defenders’ flag (figure 2). They fended off a British attack in 1776, but eventually the fort fell to them in 1780 and it was subsequently destroyed by neglect and the elements several times. Its garrison retreated to Fort Sumter in 1860 when South Carolina seceded from the Union, but they did not in so doing escape being fired upon, of course.
In 1775, George Washington, under the authority granted to him by the Continental Congress, assembled a fleet of 6 cruisers, and his secretary, Joseph Reed, designed this flag in that year for the ships (figure 3). Stripped of the “AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN,” it later became the Massachusetts maritime flag and was adapted into an early version of the flag of the State of Maine.
Traditionally, since about 1880, this flag (figure 3a, on the right) has been called the Grand Union Flag, and it is so designated in the great historical flags U.S. stamp issue of 1968 (figure 18). It is in fact the first flag commissioned by the Continental Congress, and was used from 1776-1777. This loyal citizen also flies the flag of the state of Pennsylvania and a pair of bloomers.
Most readers of Syngrammata are based in the U.S.A. and may be expected to know about this, the legendary first flag of the United States (figure 4). Readers elsewhere may not. Supposedly designed by a congressional committee, the flag was allegedly entrusted to seamstress Betsy Ross for construction; she is said to have adopted more easily legible five-pointed stars over the competing six-pointed stars then also in use. All parts of that story are disputed and probably to be put in the same bin as the apocryphal story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree. However, the flag was in fact in use, though not exclusively, until 1795.
The Bennington flag, with its olde-tyme font ’76’ in the canton, has long been associated in the public memory with the 1777 Revolutionary War Battle of Bennington (figure 5). However, the folks who make a living studying these things don’t accept this anymore. The idea is that maybe it was a patriotic, backward-looking flag put together in the War of 1812, or maybe even a creation put together in anticipation of the U.S. centennial in 1876. In any event, supposedly an ancestor of U.S. president Millard Fillmore retired from the field of Bennington with this flag, which was passed down through that family. Famously, the Romans, too, had instances of historical ‘fake news’ put together by prominent families to highlight their supposed crucial contributions to their history. Plus ça change, as they say!
If you hear Garryowen playing faintly, that’s because this swallow-tailed guidon was carried by the U.S. Cavalry into battle starting in 1862 (figure 6). It’s a little hard to count in this photo, but I think this is the 34- or 35-star flag of the 1861-5 era. Add a couple of stars and you have the flag carried by the ill-starred Custer expedition of 1876.
Not quite a national flag, but a civic entity: I apologize for this mediocre shot of the Pennsylvania flag (figure 6a). There are surprisingly few of these on private dwellings, and here the wind wasn’t cooperating.
Of course, some displayers of flags pre-empt us from a non-partisan interpretation of their flags. This display (figure 7), at its height in late summer and fall 2020, bears an unapologetic predisposition for Indiana University, competing as it does with the numerous Nittany Lions (mostly sculptures in the round) throughout the neighborhood. Is it me, or does the IU flag seem like it ought to have represented Babylon 5‘s Psi Corps?
This Frankenstein flag, flown alongside regular U.S. flags at the same house, to be sure, does not seem to point in a non-partisan direction (figure 8). The most positive interpretation I can come up with is that the person flying the flag identifies as homespun American and as a rebel who won’t let anyone kick him (not her, surely?) around. But given the use of the old Confederate battle flag as an explicit challenge to the Civil Rights movement and to display similar sentiments since, it seems to me hard not to think that the flyer is holding a few cards close to his vest. Even if the flyer is “trolling the libs” it seems counterproductive in a lib-stronghold like Scranton. You can go out into the hills of Pennsylvania (and the Southern Tier of New York State) and quickly find unironically displayed battle flags, but Scranton doesn’t seem like the place for it.
The yen to display is not limited to one end of the political spectrum. Speaking of spectra, here are two (arguably three) at a house very near ours (figure 9). As a child of the 1970s, I approve of rainbow flags in principle and remember when they had no political meaning. I’m old.
Added to the spectrum of rainbow flags is the ‘Progress Flag’, celebrating LGBTTQQIAAP identities, with one “stripe” for each. There is an argument to be made that Daniel Quasar, the designer, fell between two stools in overcomplicating this flag, especially compared to the elegance of the canonical rainbow flag in figure 9 designed by Gilbert Baker.
The “Lord, if you wish, heal us” sign, an unambiguous conflation of nationalism and religion, made fairly frequent appearances in the time running up to the 2020 elections (figure 10). At first it seems a humble request of God to do “his will, not ours.” But when you think about it for a minute, the person who puts out a sign like this pretty clearly has some mighty partisan notions about what such healing would consist of but maybe didn’t want to go all out with a Trump sign.
I’ve heard the ‘thin blue line’ flag called “the new Confederate flag” (figure 11). I suppose if the flyer approves of those famous atrocities where police officers have killed black citizens, and perhaps views the police with their guns as a modern wing of the Confederate army, I’d have to agree. But the flag transparently can have other meanings, too, which run from a cri de coeur in favor of police or the idea of public order (the latter in its pure form being something hard for any of us non-nihilists to dislike) to the equivalent of the “I donated to the policemen’s fund” bumper stickers people used to get at the cost of a small donation to hopefully dissuade an officer from issuing a ticket for some minor infraction. Call that ‘opportunistic solidarity’. I have seen a “thin blue line” flag flying at a house with a “hate has no home here” placard, for example. Hypocrisy? I just don’t think so, at least not always.
Our man who identifies as a Prius (figure 12) sports a thin blue and red line mashup flag on his second home. This was in Dickson City, not too far from my territory. The blue is for police, whereas the red is for firemen, though I’m sure you guessed it. There is a thin green line flag, which I’ve never seen, but I have seen (but couldn’t photograph) the thin red, blue, and green flag on a car about 1/8 mile from my house. This is my holy grail of “thin” flags to try to find and capture. (Found one! In Wyoming, Pennsylvania, figure 12a.) There are six white stripes in a United States flag, and three are already gone with the thin red, blue, and green line variants. More symbolic stripes will doubtless be added soon, and in a delightful case of extremes meeting, we will unexpectedly find ourselves in possession of another rainbow flag.
News flash! I just looked and there’s the thin silver-gray stripe flag for corrections officers. Reality is outpacing satire here.
I’d put the POW-MIA flag in with the political agenda flags (figure 12b).
From politically obvert we turn to “enthusiasms,” but emphatically not in the DeNiro-IS-Capone sense of that word. What ever did Green Bay fans do before they had a mashup Green Bay-U.S. flag (figure 13) to fly? Jeepers!
Speaking of the Nittany Lion, and football, here’s a flag analogous to the Green Bay one (figure 13) celebrating Pennsylvania State University with the Nittany Lion mascot in the canton (figure 14).
And lest you think this is not deadly serious business, see that the Nittany Lion is available as a grave marker (figure 15).
United States Marine Corps flags are very common here, as they have been in all of the cities I have lived in. A first for me was our next-but-one-door neighbor’s United States Naval Academy flag (figure 16).
I am deeply in favor of a beer flag (figure 17). A martini flag, such as the yachting pennant version I once saw in North Park in San Diego, California, is somewhat classier. Or maybe campier. Points for evoking, consciously or not, supervillain Frank Booth, who was similarly vehement that Pabst was his favorite beer.
As a bonus for having made it through this far I offer you this image of the U.S. 6-cent postage stamps (Scott U.S. postage numbers 1345-54) in the Historic Flags series of 1968, which shows how several of the revolutionary-era flags discussed here have been part of the mainstream culture (figure 18).
Appendix. Two new flags. 22 July 2021.
A very interesting house on what Scrantonians call ‘The Hill’ exhibits a deep investment in former President Trump (“Take back America”) and almost as an afterthought has this American flag with a Gadsden snake superimposed.
I’ve seen ‘The Punisher’ symbol a lot in the last five or six years and assumed in my innocence that it was a fascist Cthulhu symbol. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) to discover that it is the symbol of Marvel Comics’ Frank Castle, ‘The Punisher’, a “morally compromised superhero.” Castle’s (let’s face it: Cthulhu-like) symbol is claimed by an improbable spectrum of groups ranging from BLM to police and military outfits.
Appendix II. Another new flag.
This flag belongs in the series up by figure 9. I’ve seen COEXIST bumper stickers since at least the 1990s, I think, but this was the first time I’ve ever seen a flag bearing it.
Appendix III. Flags of other nations.
‘Flags of foreign nations’ opens a can o’ worms in Scranton. Italy and Ireland are very common, but here we find the U.K. being celebrated in someone’s backyard (figure 22).