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What Does Chicago's City Flag Mean?

Feb 22nd, 2021

What’s a great thing about Switzerland? Well, the flag’s a big plus! (*ba-dum-tss*) 

Did you know that Chicago’s city flag is considered to be the second-best city flag in the United States? It comes just after the flag of Washington, D.C. which, since that’s the actual capital of the country, is pretty darn impressive!

As humans, we love to adorn our cities, organizations, homes and nations with things that represent us. We like to feel like we can rally around a symbol or an icon that speaks to who we are. And what better way to do that than through a flag?

A brief history of flags

It’s believed that the first use of flags was as early as 1046 B.C. when the founder of the Zhou Dynasty in China had a white flag carried before him wherever he went. It was in India and China that flags were most prominent in early history, as flags were often displayed on chariots and before royal processions. Each nation and ruler had its own type of flag, with intricate patterns, colorful fringes or even just simple imagery that identified the flag’s owner. 

Even then, flags were understood to quite literally represent nations and, in many cases, the ruler or monarch themselves. Captured cities were adorned with the flags of the stronger nation, and the flag held such reverence that it came to represent the strength of the nation itself. If the flag fell in battle, the battle was lost. 

Although these are our first historical references to flags as we know them today, the idea of displaying a standard of sorts in battle predated even this, which is what the Egyptians and Assyrians did in ancient times. Of course, that’s something else entirely, but it’s still interesting to see where it all started.

Flags today

Since the origin of flags over three thousand years ago, the waving symbols have become the standard (pardon the pun) for every nation on the globe and nearly every major city and state. As nations evolve, the flags representing them have changed to reflect the specific histories and cultures. 

The same goes for cities! There are hundreds of cities across the nation that have designed their own flags, and that’s where Chicago’s flag comes in. 

What makes a good flag?

Like we said, flags are everywhere nowadays, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they’re all good flags. 

According to vexillologist (someone who studies flags) Roman Mars, there are five things that make a flag a good flag. 

  1. Simple is better
  2. Use symbolism that’s meaningful
  3. Use no more than 3 basic colors
  4. For the love of all things holy, don’t use lettering or seals
  5. Either be unique or be properly related to other flags

Think of the flags you know from memory. They’re likely fairly simple, have few colors and aren’t too complex. You can probably ask any middle-schooler to draw the flag of the United States and they’d do a decent job at it, and that’s because in vexillological terms, it’s a good flag! Simple, distinct, symbolic and free of fonts and letters.

Chicago’s flag

The Chicago Municipal Flag Commission was established in 1915 after city councilors recognized that the lack of a flag was becoming an increasingly irritating problem. Over a thousand flag designs were submitted to the commission, but it was Wallace Rice who produced the winning design which was adopted unanimously on April 4, 1917.

When we look at the Chicago flag, you’ll notice that it certainly fits the good-flag brief. It’s a relatively simple flag with three colors and only two different shapes. It’s recognizable from afar and is easy to remember, yet there’s a decent amount of symbolism behind the seemingly simple design.

Let’s break it down:

The white background is separated into three areas, each of which represent a different side of the city: the North, South and West sides. The background is white because Wallace Rice believed that just as that color was “the union of all the colors,” so was Chicago’s diverse population a “union of all the races.”

The two blue bars represent water. The top bar represents the Chicago River’s North Branch and Lake Michigan, while the bottom bar represents the South Branch and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which was responsible for redirecting the flow of the Chicago River in 1900.

The stars each have six points, mainly because a five-pointed star is generally representative of a sovereign state, and also because there were no other six-pointed stars as of the flag’s creation in 1917. The red color is a continuation of the World’s Columbian Exposition official red and white color combination, which the Chicago Tribune held a contest for in 1882.

Each of the stars represent a major event in the history of Chicago.

  • The leftmost star represents Fort Dearborn (early Chicago!), and each of the six points represents the six regions the area has belonged to: France, Great Britain, Virginia, the Northwest Territory, Indiana Territory and, of course, Illinois. 
  • The next star represents the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The six points represent six of the virtues held dear to the city, which include education, justice, aesthetics, religion, civic pride and beneficence. 
  • The third star represents the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The six points represent labor, commerce, transportation, finance, salubrity (health) and populousness.
  • The rightmost star represents the Century of Progress Exposition, which was held from 1933-1934. The six points represent the various identities and slogans Chicago was known as: The second-largest city in the nation (as of 1933), The "City in a Garden" motto “Urbs in horto," Chicago’s “I Will” motto, The Great Central Market, The Wonder City and The Convention City.

To sum it up

Although it may look simple, there is obviously a lot of information buried in the details of the Chicago flag. The flag represents the people, events and geography that has shaped the city’s history, and if you live in our luxury Chicago apartments, then you should be proud of your city’s super-well-designed flag!

Bonus video

As I write this, I think of the flag of the City of Spokane, which is where I live. Our flag is terrible. It is. Here’s a short clip from a local student who dutifully pointed it out. 


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Featured photo courtesy Unsplash/Ryan Arnst

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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