Walk into any college dorm, apartment, or local business in and around Chicago and you’ll likely find a common feature: the Chicago flag. It’s not hard to see why; it’s cleanly-designed, easily-recognizable, and invokes a unique identity. It acts as an incredible unifier across all neighborhoods, and is a source of local pride that few other Chicago identifiers could surpass. Though Rockford continues to do good work promoting local pride and recognizing our community identity, one common unifier has been lacking: a Rockford flag.
This isn’t to say Rockford’s lack of a city flag means it lacks a community identity or community-wide identifiers. On the contrary, since the Symbol was moved up near Auburn Street, it has acted as what its name implies: the symbol of Rockford. The community has rightfully rallied around this unique structure, and established it as the primary art-piece that represents Rockford.
But artwork fades, and there is only ever one Symbol. Sure, we put it on our t-shirts and brochures, but what happens if Symbol structurally fails, or for some other reason just no longer exists? Would we continue putting it on our t-shirts and brochures? Rockford does not lack a community identity or physical community-wide identifiers; it lacks a timeless way to express that identity.
The power flags have is well-known. They’ve been used for centuries to identify who a community is to those outside of that community. They are also drenched in symbolism for those who identify with them, and well-designed flags are timeless—adding historical weight to a cultural identity. Factors like these are what make the Chicago flag so astounding and powerful. Locally, we've recently experienced the power flags have when the Cubs won the World Series last year, and almost every building in town flew the 'W', including the Register Star pictured below.
(Photo by Max Gersh/Rockford Register Star and rrstar.com)
We know flags hold incredible power, and are swimming in meaning. So, if flags are such powerful symbols, why doesn't Rockford have one?
Rockford Flag History
I first learned Rockford lacked a city flag two years ago when I interned in the local government. There, one of my tasks was researching a history project for a local resident who inquired about the whereabouts of the city flag. I learned that Rockford did at one time have a city flag, but it was no longer in use.
The old Rockford flag came into being in 1952 during the centennial year of our incorporation as a city. It was designed by a Mrs. Karl G. Bloom who thought it would be nice to see the drum and bugle corps that her husband directed carry a flag that represented Rockford alongside the American flag. Local government officials were keen on the idea as well, so she began working on some designs. Her chosen flag design featured an emerald green background (symbolizing Rockford's superb greenery), a golden fringe, the words ‘Forest City’ and ‘Rockford, Illinois’ on the top and bottom respectively, and the city seal in the center with its scale of justice as the most prominent feature.
It stood as our community’s flag for roughly 50 years, but it didn't even escape the decade of its creation before it was riddled with controversy. After Rockford-local, Admiral George Dufek, became the first man to land at the South Pole in an airplane and named his outpost there "Little Rockford," complete with the recently-created flag, his name began to be more associated with the flag than Mrs. Bloom's.
In response, Mrs. Bloom reminded the public that she technically owned the copyright to the city flag, and insisted that the copyright symbol be attached to the design. Though she never planned to charge the City for the use of the design, she did want all commercial uses of the flag to be approved by her first, since she herself was selling t-shirts and souvenirs branding its image.
Unsurprisingly, there was an uproar against her, and the City even discussed disbanding the use of the flag right then and there. Mrs. Bloom eventually relented and gave up her copyright to the City in order to keep her design as the community flag, but it was not a good omen for the symbol of our community.
Additionally, the decision to use the city seal as the flag’s focal point also meant that the flag could never be disassociated from the city seal’s other uses such as press releases, grant applications, and tax information. With the scale of justice as the central image, the seal could never escape its authoritarian (or at least authority-oriented) look and feel. This neither invoked civic pride in a seemingly free and open society nor did it promote a friendly image to the media or grant providers.
For these reasons, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the City decided to stop using the seal for official documents in the early 2000s—opting for a cleaner, brighter corporate logo:
With the death of the city seal, the city flag made little sense, so it too went to the wayside. However, (and this is where the City, in my opinion, made a mistake) a new city flag never took the place of the old one—leaving the City of Rockford corporate logo as the stand-in symbol that now waves alongside the American and State of Illinois flags on government buildings but, perhaps not surprisingly, nowhere else in the city.
Now, I want to be clear, I don’t blame the City for changing its branding (actually, I quite like its simplicity), but a government logo is not a community flag. The logo was not intended to be and has never acted as the source of pride a community flag needs to be. The government logo or seal needs to be separate from the community flag, so while the former can morph with the changing styles, the latter is firm and enduring. We need a flag for this community that is timeless, but most importantly one that symbolizes what makes Rockford Rockford.
So, what should this new city flag look like?
That is entirely up to the Rockford community. Though there are no hard-and-fast rules on how to create a city flag, there are some key elements all good city flags have in common. Roman Mars, radio icon and host of 99% Invisible, discusses his investigation into what makes a good and bad city flag in this viral TED Talk below. If you have a chance to watch, please do; it's both interesting and hilarious. If you can't watch it right now, but are interested in the gist of it, keep on reading.
In his TED Talk, Mars interviewed members of the North American Vexillological Association (vexillology means the study of flags), and they explain the five basic principles of flag design:
(All information in this section can be found via Mars’ TED Talk)
#1: Keep It Simple
It should be so simple that a child could draw it from memory—something really important when teaching civic pride to our youngsters (think how easy it is to sketch the basics of the American flag). It should also be so simple that each feature is easily recognizable from a hundred feet away or farther.
#2: Use Meaningful Symbolism
Each part of the flag design needs to mean something. This is one reason why I do not advocate for bringing back our old flag. The old flag lacked meaning—the only symbolism was the emerald green background.
#3: Use Two or Three Basic Colors
This is pretty self-explanatory, but also backs up the ‘keep it simple’ notion. Red, white, blue, green, yellow, black are the general guidelines for ‘basic’ flag colors.
#4: Never Use Writing of Any Kind
The point of a flag/symbol is that it is recognizable without needing to be named. The Canadian flag doesn’t say ‘Canada’ on the bottom of it, yet we know it’s the flag of Canada through symbol recognition. This is the top reason why I don’t advocate for bringing back the old flag. It literally says Forest City, Rockford, Illinois on it. What’s the point of having a symbol if we’re going to write what it symbolizes?
#5: Be Distinctive
Though flags can be similar to other existing flags, they must have some qualities that make them unique.
So, what's next?
Ideally, I would tell you that my friends and I are launching a community flag competition, and I would provide you with all of the details in this section. Unfortunately, I don't have that capacity. My hope is that this article spurs another organization, such as Transform Rockford or Rockford Community Partners or the Convention and Visitors Bureau, to launch a design competition.
Though I lack the capacity to launch this competition, I do want to leave you and any interested organization with this question:
If Rockford Day (August 15th) continues to grow as an important local holiday, and the dream of a Rockford-oriented parade comes true, what will we wave?
Special thanks to Joel Didier and Tyler Yomantas for pushing me to write this article as well as to Jan Carter and Jean Lythgoe at the Rockford Public Library for compiling the former Rockford flag history.