The state flag of Illinois could be getting a makeover! In August 2023, Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois signed a bill forming a committee to look into possibly redesigning the state flag. If the Committee decides to pursue the project, they will present up to ten new flag designs to the legislature in late 2024.
The move raises the question: What is the purpose of a state (or national) flag? Is it a visual emblem of the state’s identity, representing the state beyond its borders while evoking a sense of community and belonging among its residents? Is it a symbol of continuity, uniting the state’s history with the present? Or should it reflect the shifting culture and values, a sign of progress and inclusively?
The Bill’s sponsor, Senator Doris Turner, holds the latter view. She argues, “History is living, breathing and ever evolving. We need to ensure government is evolving with the times, so people are engaged and part of what is going on across this state.”
Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton echoed Turner’s sentiments. “With the creation of the next flag of our state, we are ushering in a new era that will represent every Illinoisan and commemorate how far we have come so we may go even further together."
Changing a flag is rarely straightforward. Years ago, the government of Canada formed a similar committee tasked with redesigning the national flag. At the time, Canada’s national flag, the Red Ensign, reflected the country’s roots as a British colony rather than its existence as a modern independent nation.
Politicians were divided. Some feared a flag redesign might trigger political unrest, while others demanded that Parliament solve the “Flag Problem.” The issue divided the public, too. Some considered replacing the Red Ensign dishonored those who fought and died during World War II. Others hailed the new Maple Leaf flag as a sign that Canada was taking her place on the international stage. Meanwhile, school children wondered what was wrong with the flag they faced daily, hands on hearts, to sing the national anthem.
Time will tell how the citizens of Illinois react to a state flag redesign. However, it’s not the first time the state has considered flag updates. If accepted, the new flag would become the third to represent the state. In fact, Illinois has a long history of changing state symbols, starting with the location of its capital city.
Looking at modern-day Illinois, many assume Chicago is the state capital. About 40% of the state’s population lives in Cook County, home of Chicago. The city has long been a transportation hub for the state and the Midwest region. But initially, southern Illinois was the most populated part of the state.
Illinois was carved out of the Northwest Territory in 1818, becoming the 21st state admitted to the Union. It was a tumultuous year. To the south, the nation was fighting the Seminole War in Florida. To the north, the USA and Britain were finalizing their shared border on the 49th parallel. And the Bank of the United States changed its lending policy, triggering a financial panic.
All these events inspired Americans to pick up stakes and move to the newly formed Illinois. A steady stream of immigrants flowed in from the Northeast, Kentucky, and Tennessee, eager to farm the lush, open plains. And, for most of them, Chicago was not their destination.
At the time, waterways were the primary transportation routes. Goods and people traveled by boat — hence the word shipped — and Illinois’ location was ideal. Its southern border was formed by the Ohio River flowing west from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
On its western boundary flowed the majestic Mississippi, which formed the major thoroughfare to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. The river had been an essential trade route for many civilizations over the centuries, including the French, the state’s first European settlers.
During its 200-year history, three cities have served as the Illinois state capital. The first was Kaskaskia, located on the Mississippi near the Kaskaskia River. The town served as an administrative outpost under the French and British. It seemed a natural choice for the state capital, especially when the riverboat was king.
There was only one problem — the town was subject to frequent flooding. In fact, over the 19th century, the Mississippi changed course, shifting to the city’s eastern side. Today, Kaskaskia is on the west side of the Mississippi with only 21 residents, making it one of Illinois’ smallest towns according to the 2020 census.
So, in 1818, the state capital was moved to the newly incorporated town of Vandalia, Illinois. It was the western terminus of the National Road, the first federally built roadway. The road connected the Potomac River with the Ohio River and continued westward until the government ran out of funding. Remember the financial panic?
Vandalia’s central location in southern Illinois and its position on the National Road made it an ideal choice for the new capital. In addition to serving as a gateway for American settlers heading west, it was where Abraham Lincoln began his political career.
In 1839, the Illinois capital relocated for a third time — to its present location at Springfield. Today, Springfield boasts a population of about 200 thousand people, a drop in the bucket compared to Chicago. However, it is the largest city in central Illinois, much larger than some other state capitals. For example, it has three times the population of Olympia in Washington State and twice that of Albany, New York.
Springfield’s most famous resident, President Abraham Lincoln, was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1837. Lincoln and his colleagues joined efforts to make Springfield the new state capital. The city was further north in the center of the state. In addition, its location on the Sangamon River provided critical access to the state’s waterways: the Sangamon River flowing east-west across central Illinois, the Illinois River flowing from the north near Chicago, and the Mississippi access to the south.
Looking at the Illinois state seal is essential to discussing the state flag. Like many states, the current Illinois flag design incorporates the state seal.
Over the years, Illinois has used three seals. The first was designed and minted in 1819, shortly after Illinois became a state. No one is sure how the seal looked because the seal’s die was destroyed in a fire in 1837. The design was reportedly based on the Great Seal of the United States. It featured a bald eagle wearing a striped shield and holding an olive branch and arrows in its talons. The stars scattered over the eagle’s head included new stars bursting out of clouds, symbolizing the birth of new states.
After losing the original seal, state officials introduced a second state seal in 1839. The new design also featured an eagle with a shield decorated with stripes with three stars arranged on top. A banner inscribed with the state motto: “State Sovereignty; National Union” replaced the stars overhead. The background featured the sun rising behind a mountain range.
In 1867, Illinois Secretary of State Sharon Tyndale spearheaded an effort to change the state seal. Specifically, he wanted to inverse the state motto: “National Union; State Sovereignty.” In the years following the American Civil War, state sovereignty was a political hot potato. The legislature vetoed the motto revision but tasked Tyndale with redesigning the seal.
In this version, the eagle is in profile, standing on a rock with one talon, while the other grasps the shield decorated with 13 stripes and stars. The bolder is engraved with two dates — 1818 (the year of statehood) and 1868 (the year of adopting the third state seal). In the background, the sun rises over blue water and prairie grassland. The eagle still holds a banner in its beak, adorned with the same state motto. However, the design twists the words so that “National Union” appears at the top of the seal, with “State Sovereignty” underneath. At the same time, the term “sovereignty” is upside down, making it difficult to read.
A state seal is essential for doing the day-to-day business of the state, so the Illinois State Legislature approved an official seal within a year of entering the Union. On the other hand, a state flag is relatively low on the priority list, which explains why Illinois didn’t adopt a state flag until 1915, almost a century after achieving statehood.
In 1912, Ella Park Lawrence, state regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), started a campaign to adopt an Illinois state flag. The DAR-sponsored contest received 35 entries, and the Secretary of State selected Lucy Derwent’s flag design. The state legislature approved it in July 1915. Although the Governor neither signed nor vetoed the bill, the people of Illinois embraced the new state flag.
However, Derwent’s flag is not in use today. Her entry, featuring a colorful version of the state seal centered on a white field, was a simple but effective expression of Illinois’ identity. There was only one problem. It wasn’t easy to distinguish from other flags from a distance.
In the 1960s, one Vietnam veteran complained that many of his fellow soldiers didn’t recognize it. As a result, the state amended the design to include “Illinois” in bold blue font underneath the seal. The updated state flag was signed into law in 1969 and officially displayed in 1970.
As a historical footnote to the story of Illinois state flags, two additional designs have celebrated the state’s centennial and sesquicentennial (150 years) anniversaries. However, there was no special flag marking Illinois’ bicentennial in 2018. Perhaps thinking of a commemorative flag design sparked the idea of completely redesigning the state flag.
Time will tell whether the state of Illinois decides to revamp its flag design or not. Indeed, such a decision would be in keeping with its past. After all, this is a state that has had three capital cities and three state seals. Why not adopt a third state flag?
If the Illinois State Legislature adopts a new flag, you can be sure it will be available at Flags USA. Meanwhile, you can buy the current Illinois flag on its own or as part of a set of all 50 states. Choose from indoor flags with fringe, flags with pole sleeves, or outdoor flags finished with grommets.
Whether you want one or collect all 50, you can be confident that Flags USA is your source for high-quality 100% made-in-the-USA flags, flagpoles, and accessories.