Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Language of Flags - DC

Above, the distinctive flag of the District of Columbia. Its stars and stripes evoke the US (federal) flag, but most descriptions say the DC flag design derives from the coat of arms of George Washington's family (see here for more on the flag's origins).

Here's the Washington family shield as it appears in 14th-century stained glass on a window in Selby Abbey, Yorkshire (England). In proper heraldic vocabulary, these design motifs should be designated as "mullets and bars" and not "stars and stripes" (see the last section of this page). For more about the Washington Window at Selby Abbey, see here. For an extensive website exploring the rich legacy of Washington's arms in American culture, see here.

I was trying to find out more about the symbolism of the DC flag but the website on DC symbols wasn't that informative. For what it's worth, I have heard somewhere (was it on a Capitol tour?) that the three stars represent the branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) and bars symbolize equality. This could be an urban legend or even some sort of ironic political commentary - since DC residents lack equal legislative representation in Congress (i.e., DC has no voting representative). For more on the DC voting rights issue and how the flag is used on both sides of the issue, see this alternate version of the DC flag and this DC license plate).

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