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All Over the Map: Washington state’s headache-induced flag

Today is Flag Day, the holiday recognized by the federal government to commemorate June 14, 1777, when the U.S. flag was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

It’s also a great excuse to look at the history of our own Washington state flag, which made its formal debut in Seattle on this day in 1923.

Territorial Seal of 1854

Washington became a state in 1889. Before that, Washington Territory was carved from Oregon Territory in 1853. The territory, which of course had been Native land for millennia, had an official seal for documents and ceremonial purposes, but it probably did not have a flag.

Historian Edmond S. Meany described the territorial seal in a Seattle Times article published on April 1, 1923.

“In territorial days, the state had a seal which was designed by Lieutenant Duncan of the United States Army,” Meany told the Times. “The seal portrayed a girl holding a cornucopia from which was flowing the wealth of the state [trees, a cabin, a covered wagon, an anchor, buildings, mountains]. About the girl’s head was the Indian word “Al-ki,” which means ‘by and by’ [or, eventually].”

State Seal of 1889

With statehood approaching in 1889, a committee came up with a design for a state seal. They went to Olympia jewelers, the Talcott Brothers, for help making a die for embossing documents.

Writing in 1939 in Building a State, a book published by the Washington State Historical Society, 80-year old George Talcott said that what the committee proposed in 1889 was too complicated, depicting “the port of Tacoma, vast wheat fields, [and] sheep grazing in the valley at the foot of Mount Rainier.”

George Talcott said that his brother Charles told the committee that their design would get outmoded, so Charles used an ink bottle and then a silver dollar to trace concentric circles. He then stuck a postage stamp of George Washington in the middle of it, and wrote the words, “The Seal of the State of Washington, 1889.”

The committee took Charles’s advice, but it then fell to George Talcott to actually cut the die.

George Talcott wrote that the cutting was “… done under difficulties. It was my first attempt to cut a die to emboss a person’s picture, and it was done under rush orders. To further complicate matters, I had a sick headache. All in all, it was a difficult combination with which to contend. I really believe a much better piece of work would have been turned out under normal conditions. The picture of Washington was copied from an advertisement of [the 19th century patent medicine] Dr. Janes’ (sic) Cure for Coughs and Colds!”

Given how it turned out, perhaps he was a little too hard on himself.

Creating the State Flag, 1914-1923

Twenty years went by, and by 1909, Washington was one of maybe a half-dozen states that still had no official flag. Then, sometime between 1909 and 1914, a movement was hatched to change that.

It might have had something to do with the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, or “AYPE,” the world’s fair held on the UW campus in 1909. Or it may have been due to the efforts of then Governor Ernest Lister, who sponsored a contest to design a state flag.

The turning point may have been in 1914, when the national office of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or the D.A.R., requested from D.A.R. chapters here a Washington state flag to hang in Memorial Continental Hall, which is the organization’s ornate headquarters in Washington DC, that were constructed around that time.

A statewide D.A.R. committee was formed in Washington, and they came up with a design featuring that original ‘headache-induced’ state seal on a green background, and surrounded by gold fringe.

They then had a three-by-five-foot banner made in Washington D.C., displayed at the D.A.R.’s Memorial Continental Hall in 1915. Then, the Washington state Elks fraternal organization borrowed the banner for a big event held in Everett in 1916, which is where and when the banner made its home state debut.

It’s not clear where it went after that, but in 1923, this D.A.R. banner served as the model for what was adopted as the official state flag by the Washington Legislature in March 1923. While the banner is meant to be displayed in what would now be called “portrait” format, the state flag design was meant to be displayed in “landscape” format.

And, in what feels like wishful thinking given the divide that sometimes seems to exist between one side of the Cascades and the other, Washington State Senator Guy B. Groff of Spokane, one of the sponsors of the 1923 flag bill, said that the green area on the flag represented “the verdant fields of Western Washington,” and the gold (in the ring around George Washington) represented the “wheat areas of Eastern Washington.”

Either way, the banner was officially presented as the new state flag on April 5, 1923 at a big D.A.R. meeting in Yakima. The state law adopting the design took effect on June 7, 1923, so a week later, on Flag Day 1923, the D.A.R had a big to-do with the banner at a member’s home in Seattle, with songs and speeches and, one can assume, some pretty amazing refreshments.

If all that weren’t enough, in 1928, that original banner was put on display at the Capitol in Olympia, where it remained for almost a century.

However, according to the D.A.R.’s state historian Shirley Stirling, in recent years, the original banner became so deteriorated, it’s now been put away into protective storage. At the request of the Secretary of State’s office, the D.A.R. has privately funded an effort to create a painstaking identical replica. The new banner is being constructed by a textile firm in Oregon, and it could be ready as soon as later this year or maybe next year, but hopefully in time for the Washington state flag centennial in 2023.

There are a few other odds and ends that are worth mentioning on this Flag Day 2019.

The man who raised a “mystery flag” when Washington became a state

William Hunteman died at age 74 in Seattle in June 1939. His obituary at the time said that as a U.S. Army soldier in Walla Walla in November 1889, Hunteman “participated in the statehood inauguration ceremonies, raising the state flag for the first time.” It’s unclear what that flag would have looked like, and it suggests further research might reveal some interesting information.

They put a (Washington state) flag on the Moon

A miniature Washington state flag went to the surface of the moon aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972; astronaut Alan Bean presented it to Governor Dan Evans (attached to plaque along with a moon rock) in January 1974.

Talcott Jewelers

Talcott Jewelers, makers of that headache-induced state seal, closed in 2003 after being in business in Olympia for an incredible 131 years.

Happy Flag Day!

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