In 1911 the Pine Bluff Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution decided to make a patriotic gesture by presenting a stand of colors consisting of an American Flag, an Arkansas Flag and a Naval Battalion Flag to the brand new battleship USS Arkansas. The ladies approached the Arkansas Secretary of State and asked him what was the official design of the state flag. He replied that there was none. For seventy-five years from 1836 to 1911, Arkansas had no state flag.
This struck me as odd and so I contacted a handful of college history professors and I visited the History Commission in Little Rock. They all gave me the same answer. Yep, that's the way things were. The question of a state flag just didn't come up so often that one had to be adopted. But what about the Mexican War? What about the Civil War? During those wars didn't states have their own regiments? Around what flags did those guys rally? And when there was all that talk about "states' rights," was the presumed sovereignty of the individual state not represented with a flag?
In a word, no.
Sometimes when the official guys didn't know an answer on their own specialty subject they'll deny that there's a question, and that's what I thought might be going on in this case. The more I looked into it, however, the more I found that they were giving me the straight story. Before 1900 a flag representing your state was no more of a necessity than one representing your city or county. Suddenly at the opening of the twentieth century states were adopting flags left and right.
This is a picture of the battleship USS Arkansas. The monitor USS Arkansas had to change its name to the USS Ozark so this battleship could use the name. A monitor, by the way, is a no-frills poor nation's battleship. It consists of one or two turrets of battleship guns mounted on a smaller ship built low to the water. The theory is that a small number of big guns mounted on a platform with a low, hard to hit silhouette equals low cost mobile coastal defense.
At the turn of the century American long term naval planning was changing. Isolationism was out. Big deepwater navies ranging over the globe comprised Roosevelt's big new stick. That meant scrapping the tookie little monitors and constructing big-ass battleships instead, and those battleships were being named after states. Putting your state flag on a ship named after your state was a natural fit. If a half dozen states suddenly adopt flags to put on their new namesake battleships, that motivates the neighboring states. New battleship or not, Colorado needs a new flag because Arizona just got one. Adopting a flag is a low-cost, high-profile non-controversial activity for a state legislature, so a lot of local politicians were wondering why they hadn't thought of this before.
Arkansas Secretary of State Hodges set up a commission including the wives of two important politicians, the presidents of two important women's clubs, the publishers of two important newspapers and a couple of judges and art professors. One of the Commission members was the president of the Arkansas Federation of Women's Clubs, and there's a story behind that.
The Arkansas Federation of Women's Clubs came thiiiiiiis close to submitting a design to the state legislature in 1910, a year before the proposal of the Daghters of the American Revolution. The AFWC needed a state flag for the national convention of the American Federation of Women's Clubs held in Cincinnati in 1910. THEY had approached the governor. THEY had been told there was no official design. THEY had come up with their own design stitched by Mrs. John Ike Moore of Helena. After their convention they had modified the design and had even gone to the Old State House to present the flag to the legislators, but the session that they tried to interrupt had been raucus and loud and rough on their ladylike sensibilities. One senator told them that they might as well come back another day because that day's session was out of control and there was no chance of getting the flag on the agenda under these conditions. They left and didn't try again before they heard of the DAR proposal.
Above is the flag that the AFWC flag used in Cincinnati, drawn from a verbal description. It's a simple blue flag with the state seal in the center. Apparently this was taken from a suggestion by Civil War veteran Stan Harley who, in a letter to the Gazette, suggested using the "little blue flag" of the 6th and 7th Arkansas regiments of Confederate General P.R. Cleburne's Division. At right is a picture of that regimental flag. All the regiments in that division had blue flags with white borders and a central white "moon" which could be round, oval, semicircular or even square. The moon of the Arkansas regiments was emblazoned with the coat of arms from the Arkansas state seal.
Now here comes my favorite discovery in this whole article. Below is a picture of all fifty state flags. Twenty-four of them are plain blue flags with state seals stuck on them, just like the design of the 1910 AFWC flag. Until just recently, Georgia's flag was a blue flag with the state seal in the middle. There's another batch of flags that are the same basic design, just not blue; then there are a couple more that are just a state seal over a red-white-blue background.
So the 1910 AFWC Cincinnati design is the same basic design as 70% of all of today's state flags. So how is that a big discovery? That leads me to conclude that this is a default assumption for a state flag prior to 1900. Anybody who needed a state flag could put a state coat of arms on a flag and be understood. That's what apparently happened with the Arkansas regiments of Cleburne's division. That's apparently what went on with at least half of today's state flags, and I'd be willing to bet that this is what people habitually did in the early days when an unofficial state flag was needed.
The modified design that almost got presented to the legislature in 1910 was the same, except the seal was moved to the upper left corner and in the center a "landscape medallion showing the chief assets of the state; a stream of water, green fields, an apple tree in full bloom, in the background the hills filled with mineral wealth." The History Commission has a copy of this design on microfilm. Beautiful though it is, it's very complex. It would have been expensive to make.
It wasn't an all-out cat fight between the DAR and the AFWC, but there was a tight-jawed public politeness on the subject and it seemed as if the AFWC opined that they had gotten there first, that the whole idea of a state flag had already been dibsed by them and the DAR had usurped the initiative. The AFWC design was submitted and considered along with all the others.
Speaking of all the others, there were some lulus in the bunch. Thirty designers submitted sixty-five designs. They arrived in every condition, from fully realized flags to sketches on postcards. They were supposed to be accompanied by written explanations of their symbols, but some of those written explanations did not survive, and that's too bad. While most of the flags were built around the conventional Arkansas symbols like apple blossoms, bears, diamonds and cotton bolls, a couple were just plain mysterious. One depicted a nude man carrying a torch up a staircase toward a rising sun. The requisite written explanation was not on the microfilm at the History Commission. Maybe it was a masonic device with its 32-step stairway. Maybe it was a depiction of Prometheus.
Here's another one that had me scratching my head. The microfilm was in black and white, so I'm guessing about the colors. That thing in the middle is a square wooden post. What could that possibly mean? Maybe it's a pun on the name of the territorial capital, Arkansas Post.
There were a few obviously professional designs, one an impressive art moderne rendition of the state coat of arms on a blue flag, but the Hodges committee settled on the design below by Ms. Willie Hocker of Pine Bluff. She was a member of the very chapter of the DAR that had proposed presenting the flags to the new battleship, so I doubt that her selection sat well with the AFWC. Diamonds had just been discovered in Murfreesboro in 1907, so the diamond represented that Arkansas was the only diamond producing state in the Union. The three stars represented Spain, France and the U.S., the three countries that had ruled over Arkansas over the years. The same three stars also served as a mnemonic device that Arkansas was acquired by the U.S. in 1803. The band of 25 stars around the diamond signified that Arkansas is the 25th state, and the two parallel stars at the bottom of that band represent Arkansas and Michigan, the two states that entered the Union simultaneously. So there you have it. Simple, elegant, memorable and easy to manufacture because it's conventional and symmetrical.
Not so fast.
The committee insisted that the word "Arkansas" be put right in the middle, and Ms. Hocker consented, even though it did sort of mess up the symmetry. The problem with writing on flags is that you get a mirror image on the opposite side when the sun shines through it. Okay, so here's the revised flag as recommended by the Hodges committee, adopted by the legislature and presented to the battleship USS Arkansas. A pretty good flag for a ship.
The newly adopted flag made its first public appearance before a crowd of twenty thousand at the 1914 Arkansas State Fair at Hot Springs. Sharing the stage with the Queen of the Fair and her 500 attendants, Willie Hocker cristened the flagpole with a bottle of Hot Springs mineral water. The band played Dixie and the Arkansas flag was raised for the first time.
Even though the band had played Dixie at the unveiling ceremony, it was nine years until it occurred to somebody that four, not three, countries had ruled over Arkansas. They had left out the Confederate States of America. So the legislature voted to add another star, and above on the left is the 1923 redesign.
If you've got one of these flags, run don't walk to the antiques roadshow and get it appraised. It's a rare piece. This two-and-two arrangement lasted one year only. People thought it just didn't look right. The diamond medallion looked cluttered and unbalanced and it made people uneasy. Also, the significances of the three-star figure were lost. The state turned to Willie Hocker, the original designer, to fix the problem. She came up with the solution above on the right, which was adopted in 1924 and which endures to this day. The lettering was moved up so that instead of being centered on the long axis of the flag, the base of each letter was on the long axis. The three original stars were placed below the lettering, the one renegade star placed apart from them, above the lettering. The two blue stars just below the lettering were redesignated to symbolize Arkansas and Michigan.
That about covers the material on the Arkansas flag, but what about the ship that started this chain of events.
The USS Arkansas had a long and faithful career of service mostly in the navy's training fleet and as a transport for dignitaries. Though USS Arkansas started as a trainer, she wound up being a fighter. In WWII, she escorted transatlantic convoys until D-Day, when she participated in the landings at Utah Beach and then moved into the Medeterranean to support coastal operations in southern France, then to the Pacific playgrounds of Tinian, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. On 25 July 1946 the Arkansas served as a target ship in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.
After the age of battleships, the navy issued state names to nuclear powered missile cruisers. One such ship (CGN-41) used the name Arkansas and served from 1980 to 1998. These days state names are given to ballistic missile submarines, guided missile submarines and Virginia class attack submarines.
Ingram, Norris; "The Flags of Arkansas", Arkansas Democrat; 21 October 1962, Magazine Section, pp. 1-2
Jacobson, (senator); "Fight Promised Over Selection of Flag Design"; Arkansas Democrat, 28 Dec 1912, letter to editor.
"Committee Named to Select Flag Design"; Arkansas Democrat; December 1912.
Dawoody, W. L.; Arkansas Gazette, January 1913, letter to editor from Daughters of American Revolution.
"True Story of the State Flag"; from News of the AWFC reprinted in the Arkansas Gazette.
Harley, Stan; "Would Have Club Women Adopt Cleburne Flag"; letter to editor of Arkansas Gazette, 23 April 1910.
"Arkansas Flag is Fifty Years Old"; Arkansas Historical Quarterly; Spring 1963, vol. XXII, #1, pp. 3-7.
Herndon, Dallas; "Arkansas State Flag"; Arkansas Historical Review; vol. 1, #2, June 1934, p. 42.
Hocker, Willie; article in Pine Bluff Commercial; 11 May 1916.
"First Appearance of Flag"; Augusta Free Press; 13 March 1914.
Note: Sorry about some of these citations. They were in a collection of clippings that sometimes didn't include page numbers and columns. Also parts of the citations were handwritten and hard to read. They're at the Arkansas History Commission in the clipping files under "Flag" if you want to track them down.