The Chicago Flag: More than Stars and Stripes

By Brian J. Failing on May 13, 2012


Walking throughout Chicago’s Loop you see the Chicago flag flying high upon flagpoles, hanging from buildings, printed on t-shirts and stamped as arm tattoos on hipsters. The city of Chicago however did not always have a municipal flag. In 1917 the Chicago Flag Commission hosted a contest for the best design for a municipal flag for Chicago, and of the over 400 designs submitted, Wallace Rice’s design won. The original flag had only two stars and has since taken on two more.

Along with the stars, three horizontal white lines and two horizontal blue lines comprise the original and current flags of Chicago. The blue stripes are to show off Chicago’s rich water resources: one for Lake Michigan, and the other for both branches of the Chicago River. Some people think that the white stripes stand for Chicago’s neighborhoods and its (may I add also “very wonderful”) people, with only three since we have just North, West, and South sides of the city, however that’s debatable. Really it’s just that white is the background that the artist chose for the flag, and by chance the two blue stripes create the three sections.

The original two stars honor the Chicago Fire and the World’s Columbian Exposition. The other two were added to commemorate the Century of Progress Exposition (1933) and the founding of Fort Dearborn (1939).  Looking at today’s flag, we talk about the stars as if they are in chronological order of the events: Fort Dearborn, Chicago Fire, World’s Columbian Exposition, and Century of Progress.

And so what’s up with the six-pointed star? The commission prohibited the use of religious symbols on the flag and unlike the five-pointed star, this kind of six-pointed star has no religious connotations and also appears on no other city flag – or at least back then. And I learned while researching the history of the Chicago flag that each star point represents something different – I’m guessing this might be new to you, too, dear readers:

– Fort Dearborn has points for transportation, labor, commerce, finance, populousness, and salubrity.

– The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 has points for the virtues of religion, education, aesthetics, justice, beneficence, and civic pride.

– The points of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 stand for political entities that have had dominion over Chicago: France 1693, Great Britain 1763, Virginia 1778, the Northwest Territory 1798, Indiana Territory 1802, and Illinois 1818.

– The Century of Progress Exposition (1933-34) has points for the “bragging rightsâ€� of Chicago. At the time this star was added, Chicago was the second largest city in the United States, Chicago’s Latin Motto (Urbs in horto – City in a garden), Chicago’s “I Will” Motto, Great Central Marketplace, Wonder City (what?), and Convention City.

 While researching this post I found an interactive website on the Chicago Flag if you want to learn more.

Discussions have come up for adding stars, such as after the death of Harold Washington and before the lost 2016 Olympic Bid. Many think the Chicago flag is just fine as is. And imagine what a pain it would be to toss all the current flags and pay for new ones. And would the tattooed have to add an extra star, too?

~Brian Failing: Research & Collections Intern

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