Clockwise from top left: The New York City flag, the Pittsburgh flag, the Denver flag, and the St. Petersburg, Fla., flag.

Vexillology is the study of flags — their history, symbolism and use — and people like me who love flags (in a not-at-all nerdy way) are vexillophiles. This distinguishes us hobbyists from the people who actually design flags, who are vexillographers.

Background: A relatively modern science, the term "vexillology" was coined in the late 1950s by the grandfather of the field, Whitney Smith. A vexillology prodigy, he designed the national flag of Guyana while still a Harvard undergrad.

The intrigue: Just as nations and states have flags, so do well over 100 U.S. cities. In 2004, NAVA conducted an internet survey (now slightly outdated) in which respondents were asked to rate 150 U.S. city flags, assessing their design and overall flagworthiness.

  • The results: The top three city flags were flown in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Denver (see above, bottom right).
  • The bottom-ranked flag was that of Pocatello, Idaho, which took such grief for its flag design that it selected a new one in 2017.
  • While some city flags have changed since 2004, you can check out what your city's standard looks like (or looked like) and its ranking in the survey here.

The bottom line: Smith's NYT 2016 obit includes a quote from an interview he did with Smithsonian Magazine: “Flags express the unity and identity of one group as against all others,” he said. “That can be ugly — Hitler’s swastika flag embodied the dark side of vexillologic symbolism. But flags also can allow frail humans to feel bolstered by higher powers.”

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Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
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