Vex Ed: A Contest for a New Pittsburgh City Flag!

flag of the City of Pittsburgh

(Current) flag of the City of Pittsburgh. Can we do better?

The flag–any flag–should be a glorious, triumphant emblem that trumpets the twin messages this is who we are and you’re here now. It’s raised high above government buildings and hangs formally inside legal chambers. And–if you get it right–the public takes the flag into their own hands.

With a good flag, loyalists adopt its design as their own–flying it freely from front porches and attaching plastic decals of it to windows and bumpers; they paint it on garage doors and wear it in the form of track suits. Kindergarten teachers will instruct young patriots in the art of creating facsimiles from finger paint and popsicle sticks.

American flag made from recycled wood, Apollo, PA

No one makes these for the city flag. Homemade 28-star American flag, Apollo

When we talk about the flag of the City of Pittsburgh, we’re clearly not at this level of either fandom or familiarity. Do you know anyone not named “the mayor” who owns a Pittsburgh city flag? Do you ever see it flown in your neighbors’ yards or waved at public events the way people hoist the rainbow flag, Steelers banner, or the Jolly Roger? If we hadn’t included the image Pittsburgh’s flag [above] would you even be able to describe what it looks like?

My guess is you’ll answer no to each of these questions–and that’s a shame. Pittsburghers love their city and we should have a city flag we’re equally proud of.

flag pole with miniature flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh

Hey: somebody’s flying it! Flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow

So what’s wrong with the flag we have? Let’s start with the colors. In Pittsburgh, we accept high-contrast black and gold as natural bedfellows–like french fries and ketchup, or french fries and sandwich meat, or french fries and salad greens. The extra addition, however, of the blue and white detail in the central checkerboard crest is what really sends this palette from reckless driving into fatal collision. Nowhere should these four colors intersect–not even in Cleveland.

While the background black/gold/black vertical sections are a nice, simple, bold presence, they’re directly at odds with the completely useless design-by-committee noise in the middle of the flag. Here, a cartoonish tri-turreted castle–looking like the packaging for a child’s play set–awkwardly either floats above or balances tenuously atop the curlicue formality of the city crest.

detail of the center design in Pittsburgh's city flag including three-tower castle and crest with eagles and blue-and-white checkerboard

Detail: “A triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted”

Putting aside questions about why the City of Pittsburgh is represented by a medieval European-style fortress, its pairing with an embellished coat-of-arms inherited from William Pitt is particularly dissonant. [These are referred to as “a triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted,” respectively.]

This combination creates chalk and cheese design elements that not only have nothing to do with each other and are scaled in odd proportion, but look like they were rendered by entirely different hands. Mercifully, there isn’t any text to not be able to read in the crest, but from any distance I dare you to find anyone who can make out those “eagle-fronted bezants” flapping in the breeze.

Less is more. Same flag, less crap.

Less is more. The same flag, without the crap.

Pittsburgh Orbit will never advertise itself as a design shop, but even without the background and very limited fake-Photoshop skills, the simple removal of the junk in this flag’s trunk–that being the ridiculous castle and crest–seems like an enormous win. We’d fly that thing off the H.M.S. Orbit with pride. Further streamlined down to the bare minimum square of one each black and gold halves may be even better.

flag of the City of Pittsburgh with center details removed and reduced to two vertical black/gold sections

Even less is even more…maybe. Two-tone black/gold square.

Something clearly needs to be done around here. There were grandiose plans: a design contest! with celebrity judges! a big-reveal gala event! we could even pitch it to the city! Meetings were taken with, you know, a media partner and real designers. But…ah, hell–that’s a lot of work and you try finding a local expert in vexillology. Heck, just try pronouncing it!

All that said, the simple goal remains to come up with a banner that Pittsburghers will recognize, identify with, and fly proudly from their eves and stitch to the seats of their pants.

SO, here’s where you, dear reader and creative acquaintances of dear reader, come in. We’d love to see your submissions for a redesigned flag for the City of Pittsburgh. This blogger has no idea whether The Orbit‘s audience would support such an effort, but we’re crossing fingers and, like Casey Kasem, keeping our feet on the ground, and reaching for the stars.

Submissions

  • Submit a .jpg image of reasonable quality (let’s say at least 800 px wide) via email to pittsburghorbit [at] gmail [dot] com. Please include “Pittsburgh flag” in the subject line along with your name and contact information in the body of the message.
  • We’re not going to attach a lot of rules to this except that the work must be your own and original; you can pick whatever colors, aspect ratio, level of visual complexity, etc. Goofy/joke entries are entirely encouraged.
  • By submitting to the contest, you grant Pittsburgh Orbit permission to publish your design in a future post. Entrants will, of course, be credited and retain full rights to their work. Pittsburgh Orbit reserves the right to not publish submissions that it considers offensive, ugly, or just plain dumb.
  • Prize: There’s no monetary prize, but there are more ways to measure victory than with a calculator–and we can have more than one winner. We’ll feature the best submissions in future posts along with discussions with the artists/designers. Hopefully we’ll get enough good/unique entries to have a legit show IRL or print a book or something–but that will have to remain TBD for the time being.
  • Deadline: Sunday, October 1. So don’t sleep on it! Get those noodles cookin’ and send us a flag!
proposed flag with gold planet on black field with text "ORBIT"

Hey, it’s an option!


Background/further study:

Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thumberg

brick house with many handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Little America: Thumberg house, 3rd Street, Beaver, PA

It’s a cliché, sure, but you can’t miss it.

No, the sweet, pre-war two-story brick home would look a lot like many others found in Pittsburgh’s down-river boroughs but for the wealth–some might say overload–of red, white, and blue homemade patriotic holiday displays that fill every inch of its front, side, and rear yard space. Together, they lift this house from small town charmer to an explosion of full-on Yankee Doodle Dandydom.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

Beaver, PA. A picture-perfect embodiment of quaint. The town’s wide streets, stately manors, well-groomed lawns, and fancy boutiques look more country posh than the (ex-)industry brownfields and empty storefronts of almost all its Ohio Valley neighbors[1]. But it’s a pleasant, accessible, middle-class midwestern posh, rather than its harder-to-take New England old money cousin.

There was long bit about taking a bike from Monaca to Rochester and then here to Beaver, but our editor told us to cut the crap. Suffice to say, there are a bunch of interesting things in town and River Road is both aptly-named and bicycle-perfect. If you take it almost all the way around and then back to the main drag, your ride-around will conclude up on 3rd Street with the great homemade holiday decorations of Gary Thumberg.

Gary Thumberg with his handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Gary Thumberg by his alley cannon and flags

Some of the displays may be what you’re expecting. There are dozens of eagles, their wings spread in majestic mid-flight glory and bodies brightly marked like sports jerseys. A couple of them have been framed in lumpy ovals to appear as if in an official seal. Uncle Sam is here–the red, white, and blue literally oozing out of him–as are many, many American flags in different sizes and variants.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including flags, eagles, and star flowers, Beaver, PA

side of Thumberg’s house with flags, eagles, and star flowers

In The Orbit‘s annual Independence Day post, we mused about why it’s so difficult for homemade flag-painters to get the 50-star count right. On this matter, we need to eat some Corvus brachyrhynchos (that’s all-American crow).

With so many homemade flags created by the same two hands, it’s exciting to see the umpteen different expressions that Gary Thumberg has come up with. For sure: flags that are near the exact design you’ll see flying above the courthouse are featured in the yard. But so are seven-striped models of minimalism, gestural two-star tree-hangers, and reverse-color mind-benders.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

In addition to these familiar forms, the lawn display also includes some other interesting takes on America’s favorite color scheme.

Thumberg attacks the most effervescent of holiday imagery in his captured-in-time fireworks explosions. These wooden cut-outs–complete with smoke trails and star blasts–are repeated several times with different paint jobs. The image is perhaps Thumberg’s most impressionistic form–a daring move to represent so much motion and light, sound and fury in two dimensions, staked in grass.

handmade wood cut fireworks lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

fireworks

The most unique of Thumberg’s choices has to be a large teddy bear form that appears multiple times around the property[2]. How these relate to the declaration of independence, we don’t know–and didn’t think to ask at the time–but we’ll go with it. The bears are standing up for America with no identifiable facial markings and just the vertical red/white/blue stripes of the season. A human-sized teddy bear is out front riding a (real, decommissioned) bicycle.

handmade wood cut teddy bear lawn decoration on bicycle, Beaver, PA

show me what democracy looks like: patriotic teddy bear on bicycle

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including teddy bear, fireworks, and Uncle Sam, Beaver, PA

patriotic teddy bear, fireworks, Uncle Sam

You’d think the 4th would be enough, but Gary Thumberg is holiday crazy. Independence Day is just one of four annual occasions that prompt the sixty-something year-old Thumberg to shuffle the contents of his storage shed/workshop/garage–taking in the previous event’s decor and prepping for the next.

With a holiday every season [Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are the others] and the weeks of work it takes him to remove the old, bring out the new, patch, paint, and repair any trouble spots, and finally lay out and line up everything for display, the decorations are a (nearly) full-time side occupation.

handmade wood cut eagles lawn decorations in back yard, Beaver, PA

back yard eagles and flags

The family came to this house on 3rd Street over 40 years ago, and Gary’s passion for holiday decoration goes back almost as long. The painted plywood decorations are all cut out by Thumberg with a jigsaw using various paper patterns or templates. From here, they’re sanded, painted, and hammered into the ground. The majority of the display is saved, stored, and brought back out again each year, but Gary tries to add one or two new pieces each season. Neighbors have gotten into the act by donating lights, wood, paint, and brushes.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decoration of red, white, and blue Snoopy, Beaver, PA

Snoopy

The Thumbergs–Gary lives with his lovely 87-year-old mother Doris–want you to stop by and see Gary’s work. A guest book out front encourages visitors to sign in and leave their thoughts. Doris has volumes of past years’ entries with signees coming from every state in the country and all over the world.

Catching this blogger photographing the side of his house, Gary came out to say hello and led me around, acting as tour guide to the full display, which extends into the back yard and out to the alley. Then I got invited into the house, phone numbers were exchanged, and we were invited back.

We will be back–for sure. We’ll see you guys at Halloween, if not sooner.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag


[1] Yes, Sewickley is the other obvious exception.
[2] We weren’t sure what these shapes actually are, but Gary Thumberg confirmed them as teddy bears.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2017

garage door painted like American flag, Millvale, PA

garage flag (53 stars), Millvale

If congress ever grants Puerto Rico the right to become America’s fifty-first state, it will likely be a very good thing for the island–at least, its electorate are optimistic. The most recent referendum was just last month with a whopping 97% of voters opting for the change[1].

That said, Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the union will inevitably end up as a nightmare for the graphic designers tasked with figuring out how to artfully arrange the awkward number of 51 stars into coherent symmetry for the to-be-updated American flag. Fifty-one is not a prime number–you could do three rows of 17–but come on, it’s going to be a star-spangled mess.

plywood storefront painted like 48-star American flag, West Newton, PA

empty storefront cover flag (48 stars), West Newton

homemade American flag made from fence wood, Apollo, PA

fence flag (28 stars/7 stripes), Apollo

Anyone born here in the last half century has grown up with a 50-state America and its flag with a matching star count. That can make a lot of us feel like it’s always been that way, and always will be. However, we know what happens when we forget our history. Like that 51-star flag, it isn’t pretty.

The United States started as the thirteen original British colonies, each individually converted to statehood/commonweathdom. Over the next two centuries another thirty-seven expansion teams were gradually added to the league. Vermont and Kentucky formed the very first class in 1795; the most recent was Hawaii in 1960.

homemade American flag made from fence material, Carroll Township, PA

fence flag (39 stars), Carroll Twp.

garage door painted like the 13-star colonial American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

13-star colonial/”Betsy Ross” design garage flag, Stanton Heights

The flag–or, at least, the number and arrangement of white stars on its blue field–was redesigned many times in this span. These were often periods of just one or two years with a particular design until another new state was added. While the general stars-and-(thirteen) bars composition never varied, the arrangement of the constantly-in-flux star count sure did.

When that number added up to something nice and easily divisible–like, say, 20, 24, 30, 35, or 48–there’s an obvious grid to lay out. But on the years where you’re starting with a prime number, it doesn’t work out so nicely. Take, for example, the 31-star flag used in the 1850s or the 43-star flag of 1890-91–these are just plain raunchy. I’m sure Henry Clay was working overtime to convert western territories just to get out of using some of these ugly-ass banners.

concrete bridge support painted like American flag with slogan "Make the Channel Great Again", Pittsburgh, PA

“Make the Channel Great Again” (no stars attempted), 31st Street Bridge

American flag mural on V.F.W., Sharpsburg, PA

V.F.W. flag (50 stars!), Sharpsburg

It is so interesting that a person–heck, it’s Independence Day–a patriot–would dedicate this much time, effort, and public-facing garage-front property to hand-constructing and commemorating Old Glory, but not bother to paint the right number of stars.

The pattern is just not that difficult to match. There are exactly 50 stars on America’s flag, one for each state. These are arranged in nine rows that space to interleaved sets alternating between six and five stars. There are lots of models to look at.

Regardless, citizens taking up paint bucket and brush to turn an old section of fence, shipping pallet, or garage door into a crude rendition of the star-spangled banner is about as American as it gets. Not getting the math right on the star count only makes it more so.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!


Some of the other interesting flags and flag-like things we’ve come across in the last year:

American flag hanging in second-floor doorway of brick house, Pittsburgh, PA

doorway flag, Lawrenceville

Mary statue in front of brick porch with many American flags, Pittsburgh, PA

front yard Mary with flags, Oakland

We’re working on a whole piece around the front yard Marys of Oakland, in which this photo will inevitably be cross-listed. Until then, this combo of Mary, papa flag, mama flag and her eight sisters, plus a whole lot of baby flags stuck into a red, white, and blue base will have to get you through the holiday.

patriotic mural including soldiers, military cemetery, and American flag, Leechburg, PA

mural, Leechburg

male mannequin dressed as a woman standing in front of American flag, Hawley, PA

mannequin/flag, Hawley, PA

Little Hawley, PA–way across the state on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Poconos–is definitely not in the Pittsburgh “orbit”, but we loved this thrift shop’s repurposing of an obviously-male mannequin into a women’s clothes model with patriotic backdrop so much we had to include it.

metal rolling window cover painted with crossed American and Polish flags, Pittsburgh, PA

American and Polish flags, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Bloomfield

Sigh. Later this year, when the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern finally serves up its last Polish Platter and Dingus Day goes looking for a new home, this classic old world/new world unity image will (likely) be painted over in favor of the future new owner’s redesign. When that day comes, you can count on the mother of all Orbit obits. Until then, we can only hope it remains “Pittsburgh’s original Polish party house,” but don’t hold your breath.

American flag on pole split into two, Pittsburgh, PA

flag torn asunder, Esplen

While it’s tempting to think of the torn-right-down-the-middle flag we found flying in Esplen as a subtle political commentary, I have a feeling the real explanation is simple neglect along with the wear-and-tear on any fabric left out for a few too many Pittsburgh winters.

For the record, Section 8 (e) of the U.S. “Flag Code” states: “The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.” Further, under Destruction of Worn Flags, the code continues, “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The Orbit is in no position to tell anyone what to do about anything, but I think it’s safe to say this Esplen flag is still very much a “fitting emblem” of the deeply-divided America of today.

red metal flag drop box at Rochester, PA, Veterans of Foreign Wars

V.F.W. flag drop box, Rochester, PA

plastic light-up flag in window, Pittsburgh, PA

window flag, Bloomfield

yard sign reading "Kathleen's Beaver Supports our Troops", Beaver, PA

No snickering! Kathleen’s Beaver Supports our Troops, Beaver

homemade poster reading "America is Great", Pittsburgh, PA

America is Great, Lawrenceville

A pre-election 2016 homemade banner hanging from a Lawrenceville front porch wasn’t enough to convince Pennsylvania voters they were already living in a great country, sigh.


[1] Although only a paltry 23% of the population voted. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Rican_status_referendum,_2017.