Philly’s city flag is over 120 years old. It’s time for something new

The Philadelphia flag waves outside the city’s Municipal Services building. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Philadelphia flag waves outside the city’s Municipal Services building. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia has a truly unremarkable flag.

In 1895, designer Rev. Henry McCook persuaded then-Mayor Edwin Stuart that a flag would unify the city as a shared symbol. The design McCook settled on was a blue flag with a gold stripe. Smack dab in the middle was the city’s official seal.

When you look at Philadelphia’s flag, that seal makes the whole thing look muddled and confusing — especially when hoisted 20 feet into the air.

I’m proud of Philadelphia. I’ve lived in the region my whole life and want to celebrate that fact, but how can I actually show pride? Unless I put on a Phillies jersey or a Wawa sweatshirt, what is there? I want a new municipal flag that’s unique, beautiful, and representative of our city. A shared symbol, like Rev. McCook envisioned, that can unite our city.

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I traveled to Chicago over the summer, and the city’s relationship with civic pride is quite different. A big part of it, I believe, has to do with its flag. The Chicago flag is simple but elegant, featuring a white base with two sky blue horizontal stripes. In the middle are four red six-sided stars.

The flag of Chicago (City of Chicago)

This flag is massively popular. It is proudly displayed in the window fronts of most businesses and printed on clothes for sale. You’ll find its elements remixed for local politicians and causes — a number of candidates in this year’s elections utilize different elements of the Chicago flag to tie their brands to the Windy City.

When I tell people about Philadelphia’s flag, there are two common responses. They either don’t realize our city has a flag or, if they do, they can half-describe its colors or vaguely recall that two women are situated in the middle. The flag flies high in front of most government buildings, but I have yet to see anyone hang one in front of their house.

The Philadelphia flag waves outside the city’s Municipal Services building. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Instead, most Philadelphia window fronts feature flags that bear our sports teams’ names. Walk around your neighborhood, and you’ll lose count of the businesses that showcase Phillies or Eagles merch (the number of Phanatic or Gritty appearances alone is impressive). I love these mascots and teams (especially Gritty), but that’s only one facet of Philadelphia.

We’re a city of history. The first White House was built here, the Declaration of Independence was signed here, and the first Continental Congress convened here. For people who want to show civic pride, what options do we have?

Unless we want a shirt from an Old City souvenir shop with the Philly skyline or the word “Jawn,” we default to sports teams. The Phillies, Flyers, Eagles, Union, Freedom — you name it — rake in free advertising through the logos that are printed across our chests, worn on our heads, stuck onto our bumpers, and flown from our flagpoles. And don’t get me wrong, I love (and get frustrated by) our teams. I’ll never forget the Eagles Super Bowl LII victory, but I’m not thrilled at the prospect of being a walking billboard.

I would love to have what Chicagoans have: a flag that represents what the city has endured and where it’s headed. Philadelphia deserves the same treatment.

I’m not the only one who’s longed for something new.

Back in 2013, several groups found inspiration in revamping Philly’s flag. A Reddit flag design group asked its members to come up with something new and fresh for our city. What followed were 42 comments teeming with possibilities. One person put a quill center stage to evoke the Declaration of Independence’s signing, while another designer chose the Liberty Bell and stars. Some got abstract with symbols, and others took William Penn’s original city designs to heart.

Also in 2013, consulting firm BresslerGroup (now Delve) hosted the “Reflag Project” as part of its yearly design festival. Industrial designer Ed Mitchell was inspired by a TED Talk and redesigned every state flag, eventually turning his focus on Philadelphia’s. Mitchell and BresslerGroup proposed this flag, evoking Philly’s history and architecture.

Mitchell tells me the firm never pushed the design further than a fun exercise, but he’s still interested in making a fresher design a reality. Looking at the flag he spearheaded, a Liberty Bell with a keystone on top is a design I would gladly plaster everywhere. And my knee-jerk reaction has some merit to it; one flag design enthusiast says the true test of a flag’s staying power is when people get it tattooed on themselves. Chicago is way ahead of us in that respect.

Flag designed BresslerGroup (BresslerGroup)

Some people know and love Philadelphia’s flag the way it is. Partners for Civic Pride celebrates Civic Flag Day every year on March 27, when City Council made Reverend Cook’s design official. The Partners for Civic Pride and I agree on what a flag can do: connect people through shared symbols. Taken a step further, I believe a more aesthetically pleasing and contextually meaningful design could better spark excitement across the city.

We’re a city of makers, designers, and doers. Let’s tap Philadelphia creatives to seek out a fresh flag. Back in 2020, the city held a contest to decide on a new “I Voted” sticker to be distributed on Election Day. City Commissioner Lisa Deeley said that while stickers aren’t the biggest deal during election season, “it is certainly something that the public is highly passionate about.” Submitted designs included the Liberty Bell, SEPTA tokens, and City Hall. And now Temple student Katie Fish’s art is a part of our election process.

We can seek out artists to do what they do best: create art. Chicago has a beautiful flag, but it doesn’t have to be an exception to the uninspiring city flags flying across the country. We don’t have to resort to Swoop, the Eagles mascot, or a Wawa Italian hoagie to depict the accomplishments, culture, and history of Philadelphia. Part of what makes this city great is that there’s something for everybody, and we can find that special something to send up flagpoles from Eastwick to Somerton and everywhere in between.

Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love. Let’s show off that love and fly our pride high.

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