My relationship with vexillology is complicated. Vexillology is, to put it simply, the study of flags: their design, their relevance, their histories, etc. Anything to do with a piece of fabric flying in the wind falls under the umbrella of vexillology. However, in recent years, the definition of vexillology has begun to shift from “the study of flags” to “enthusiasm and appreciation for flags”. This is a result of the space that vexillology maintains in the modern day. 

There aren’t a lot of new countries coming around in the world lately, and with the exception of New Zealand’s failed referendum in 2016 (which was totally bogus, by the way) not too many countries are in the market for new flags. With this change came a shift in who was considered to be a vexillologist. No longer were there any professional flag designers nor were there a great number of flag scholars, but there was a very large demographic of people still interested in flags, that being white boys in their early teens who thought that they were smarter than everybody else. 

Speaking as a former member of that exact demographic, let me assure you that this is no joke. There was a whole pipeline, starting with internet personalities beloved by our demographic such as CGP Grey or Roman Mars, continuing on through the r/vexillology internet forum page (which has 474 thousand members, a number greater than the population of Raleigh, North Carolina) and finishing with NAVA, the North American Vexillological Association with their yearly summits. 

The Official Flag of the North American Vexillological Association

Since I was a cis-white-preteen-male at the time, it certainly wasn’t the worst internet nosedive to have fallen into, but I’d be lying if I said there was no overlap with my former demographic’s more infamous pipeline. After all, flags are a symbol of a nation, which, when the rose colored glasses through which we view our history are removed via age, education, and an intersectional perspective, can feel more nationalistic than patriotic, as if, after the last decade, there’s even a difference anymore. And yet, I often will still find myself fascinated by a flag, if not for what it represents than for the graphic design put into it. 

That is what keeps me coming back to vexillology despite my now disheartened perspective on the concept of a nation-state. Flags, in my view, are not totems of the state to be worshiped and revered, but works of art to be appreciated and critiqued. As a matter of fact, vexillologists have been doing quite a bit of critiquing as of late. We love to make fun of the horrendously ugly flags of Provo, Utah or even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We even have rules on how to do it! Below are the North American Vexillological Association’s 5 principles of flag design, as quoted directly from their handbook “Good Flag, Bad Flag”:

  1. Keep It Simple.  The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism.  The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors.  Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
  4. No Lettering or Seals.  Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related.  Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

Local municipalities are infamous for violating some if not all of these rules often to a hilarious extent. Therefore, despite my reservations about the field of vexillology and about flags in general, I would like, today, to look at all the flags of Cape Cod through the perspective of NAVA’s 5 principles of flag design in an attempt to discover whether even a single town on Cape is capable of creating a good flag. One small note before we get started: oftentimes, municipalities don’t like to advertise their flags, particularly when they are as abominable as those in Barnstable County, so I would like to thank the FOTW Flags Of The World website at http://flagspot.net/flags/ for providing a very helpful database containing nearly every flag I’ve ever tried to look up in my life. All flags on this post were sourced from there.

Let’s start with the biggest of the bunch, Barnstable County, the layer of government containing within it all 15 towns on Cape Cod. The flag is a white field with the county seal in the middle, immediately violating principles one, four, and five. The large codfish in the center of the seal could be an attempt at meaningful symbolism, but that point goes to the designer of the seal rather than the designer of the flag, furthering the intense rivalry between vexillologists and sigillographers (and don’t even think of mentioning heraldry). The two to three colors rule is the only pass for this flag and it is not nearly enough to make up for the many mistakes that this flag makes. What’s worse is that it isn’t the only one. 

The flag of Barnstable County

I was expecting to write this post with a section of each of the flags, but that would get so redundant it would border on unreadable. For my abilities, it is certainly unwriteable as well. Instead, allow me to now list the names of Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Orleans, Wellfleet, and Yarmouth. Each of these towns has a flag that is virtually identical with the state flag of Massachusetts and the county flag of Barnstable with a slightly different seal. The backgrounds are white, the seals are busy and nondescript, and from a distance I could not tell the difference between the flags of Mashpee and Orleans which, I say without an ounce of irony, are very different places with very different histories and people. Their flags ought to represent this. 

These aren’t even the only seal-on-a-bedsheet flags, merely the ones where the backgrounds are white. Brewster, Chatham, Dennis and Sandwich are exactly the same, only with blue backgrounds, albeit with a bit of creativity thrown in. Sandwich is the only normal one of this bunch, with a seal on a navy blue background. An ugly flag, but still better than the others. Brewster has taken a very ambitious approach and decided to either format their seal sideways or have a flag that is meant to be hung portrait style rather than landscape style. Much like the Pontiac Aztek, this flag shows that just because something is new and innovative doesn’t mean it’s good. Seeing it as a challenge, Dennis has retorted with the ugliest shade of neon blue framed by a yellow outline on three, not four, of its sides. I think Dennis may have misinterpreted the “a child must be able to draw it” rule as “it must look like a child has drawn it.” Chatham rounds out the blue team with a much larger and more complicated seal along with small pictograms in each of its four corners, showing a lobster, seashells, and an anchor. Every one of these flags is ridiculous.

It is at this point in my research where I realized that the five basic principles of flag design were somewhat unnecessary. I don’t need to mathematically prove why Provincetown’s flag is ugly, it is able to do so on its own merits, with its near unreadable seal on the most horrid orange backdrop imaginable. Actually, I take it back. There is one backdrop that is worse. Another seal-on-a-bedsheet, Harwich has chosen a background that I can only describe as being reminiscent of the planet Jupiter. It is not a single color, but rather a gradient with curving stripes that I can only assume are a misguided attempt to represent a beach. I am not kidding when I say that one feels like the Pioneer 10 Spacecraft when observing this flag, so much so that I refuse to believe that the planet Jupiter was not an artistic inspiration.

Provincetown’s fascinatingly colored flag
The largest extant image of Harwich’s real flag

Then, we arrive at the worst of the worst. The final, absolute bottom tier contains two towns: Barnstable and Truro. Truro is decidedly less awful than Barnstable’s, but still miles behind the rest of the competition. This flag mimics a seal-on-a-bedsheet with two notable changes. First off, the bedsheet is actually a set of blue and green stripes, (three dark blue, three green, and, inexplicably, one light blue) and secondly the seal isn’t a seal so much as it’s a circular design of a lighthouse in front of a sunset, with the peak of the lighthouse just slightly exiting the circular frame. In the bottom left-hand corner, written in gold text, are the words “Town of Truro incorporated 1709”. My grief is beyond words.

The physical sensation of pain expressed in vexillological form

And lastly, the award for worst flag on Cape Cod goes to my hometown of Barnstable, Massachusetts. It has a seal like the others, but it has been relegated to the top right corner of the flag, acting like a shining moon overlooking the scene below, and what a scene it is. The center of the flag is the shaded-in outline of a lighthouse upon a beach, in what some would call a silhouette and I would call a literal photograph that has been colored over. On a flag! Think of the elegance of the Canadian flag, or the symbolism behind The UK’s Union flag (it’s only called the Union Jack when it’s flown at sea). Compare that to the idea of taking a picture, coloring it in so that it appears stylized, or more accurately that it appears as if a lazy person wanted it to appear stylized, and throwing it on your flag right above the words “Barnstable, Massachusetts 1639” which, by the way, already appear on the flag in the seal in the top right hand corner! Shame on you, Barnstable. Shame.

Why? Dear God, why?

Perhaps, in the end, the real winner here is Eastham. The lone town on Cape to not have an official flag. The only town spared from the mediocrity and downright repulsive attitude towards sane graphic design seemingly found everywhere else on Cape Cod. Maybe it’s something in the water supply, considering Eastham is the only town on Cape without town water. Sorry, as a Barnstable kid who went to school at Nauset I have to get a little burn in on Eastham wherever possible. If you’ve read this far and, like me, are enraged about anything good being said about Eastham, I beg of you to please call your town councilor, your selectman, or go to town meeting and ask, nay demand, that this issue be rectified. Cape Cod is not without flaws, but we deserve better than this. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s