Books

Visions of the US Flag that Could Have Been

A book revisits a selection of 50 previously unseen suggested redesigns of the American flag made between 1958 and 1959.

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Flag designed by J. Osowski of Washington, D.C., from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions (all images courtesy of Atelier Éditions)

When Congress approved of Alaska’s statehood in 1958, members of the Eisenhower Administration began receiving an overwhelming number of public redesigns of the nation’s flag. They received over 3,000 red, white, and blue concepts from Americans from all regions and all ages, all of whom held hope that their vision would one day wave across the country for all to see. The design challenge was a longstanding one: President Eisenhower, since 1953, had created a joint committee tasked with figuring out how to best incorporate two new stars to the current flag to represent the then-likely entry of Alaska and Hawaii.

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Cover of ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions

The 50-star flag as we know it now first flew over Fort McHenry on July 4, 1960, and it has remained the same ever since. Meanwhile, the designs that could have been were never discarded but are preserved to this day in the archives of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas. Old Glory, a book recently produced by Atelier Editions, revisits a selection of 50 previously unseen ones that date between 1958 and 1959. The original efforts speak to the seriousness some Americans brought to the project: Eisenhower’s committee received designs in all forms, from crayon renderings and pencil sketches to ones actually made of fabric, carefully sewn together.

For this new title, Atelier Editions has transformed all of its selections into color lithographs as a nod to the popular printing methods of the time. Original designs appear in a handful of archival photographs that show smiling citizens holding up their star-speckled creations. Such photos often accompanied the flag submissions, at times even along with letters to government officials that argued why someone’s design should reign supreme.

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Flag designed by Harry A. Froboess of Santa Fe’s Chamber of Commerce in SantaFe, NewMexico, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions

It’s far too easy to troll such an effort in today’s digital age (exemplified by New Zealand’s own, recent vexillology debacle), but for the most part, it seems that Americans in the 1950s sent in genuine visions. Atelier Editions’ chosen sample reveals that people largely remained within the pre-existing format of a square and alternating stripes. There weren’t many wild deviations — although one J. Osowski from Washington, D.C. envisioned scrapping that framework in favor of a blank map of the country, dotted with white stars. And young Sally Marx, a student from Flushing, Queens, apparently focused on aesthetics over symbolism, building a rhythmic design based on bold diagonals.

Most submissions, however, tended to edit just the upper left corner rectangle. One Harry A. Froboess of Santa Fe set the 50 stars in a ring around the Statue of Liberty; Harold M. Brown of L.A. replaced all stars with the symbol of the United Nations. Missouri’s L.W.B. Taenzer had a more logical approach: his design reverted to the original number of 13 stars, arranged in a circle around the number “50.”

Not every flag, of course, emerged as a strong contender (17-year-old Robert Heft of Lancaster, Ohio, is often credited with the winning design, but no official documents confirm his authorship) but they represented, consolidated in easily understood shapes and colors, the attitudes towards freedom, unity, and other ideals considered by individual Americans as pillars of their nation. The process itself was a celebration of democracy, too, as was the ensuing preservation of the submissions as significant voices from the nation’s past.

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Flag designed by Sally Marx of Flushing, NewYork, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Donald Miller from Air Force Base, Alaska, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by VickySturley of Detroit, Michigan, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Vaino E. Juslen of Redgranite,Wisconsin, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Harold L. Benner of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Harold M. Brown of Los Angeles, California from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Jennie M. Beebe of Kansas City, Missouri, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by L. W. B. Taenzer of St. Louis, Missouri, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by “Unnamed Brother of I.S.Colodner” of Brooklyn, New York, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Ralph A.Senesi of South Gate, California, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Greg Barker of Elgin, Texas, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Flag designed by Gordon H. McCrea of the U.S.Navy, from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Spread from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions
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Spread from ‘Old Glory,’ published by Atelier Editions

Old Glory is published by Atelier Editions.

Correction: A previous version of this article didn’t make clear that Alaska was proposed to become a state in 1958 and incorrectly stated that it became the 50th state. This has been amended.”

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