PORTLAND, Maine — In 1901, Maine adopted its first official state flag. It featured a white pine tree and a blue north star set on a plain, buff background. The banner was unique, unlike any other flag in the world. Seven years later, the legislature replaced it with a generic “seal on a blue bedsheet” design easily mistaken for dozens other state flags.
That 1909 flag is still flying atop the State House dome in Augusta, 108 years later. The original, more distinctive, design flapped off into history. It was never used again. The Maine State Museum doesn’t even have one.
Now, a century after it vanished, the upstart Maine Flag Company wants to see the original banner running up flagpoles again. Bethany Field, who owns the company, has been hand making the classic flags, one-at-a-time, in a tiny third-floor studio in the India Street neighborhood since last year — and she can barely keep up with orders.
Five years ago, Bethany Field and her husband were looking for a unique gift for a friend. That’s when they stumbled over the old flag design. They loved it but couldn’t find it for sale anywhere.
“We thought, we can make this ourselves,” Field said. “And that sort of launched the beginning of the company.”
Field showed the old design to some family members and friends. Most had never seen it before. It was a hit and many wanted one for themselves. Another friend at the Portland Trading Company offered to sell them for her.
“Then, I had some extra time on my hands,” said Field, “and thought ‘why don’t we just put a Facebook ad out and see if there’s any interest?’”
She did and the response was overwhelming. Eventually, Field had to cut orders off to fill the existing ones for Christmas.
Field likes the original design because it’s simple and meaningful.
“It’s two or three basic colors. It’s not complicated,” she said. “It’s recognizable and it’s relatable to the people who fly it.”
Vexillologists — people who study flags — agree.
“The old flag is more distinctive,” said Dave Martucci of Washington. Martucci is the former president of the North American Vexillological Association. He points out that it’s much easier to spot at a distance than the current flag and it’s so simple, a child could draw it.
Today’s Maine flag sports the intricate state seal. A sailor and farmer stand on either side of a moose lying under a pine tree within a crest. The north star is above with Maine’s motto: Dirigo. It’s Latin and is generally translated to “I lead.” Below, is a banner saying “Maine.” The whole cluster is crammed into the center of the flag, leaving most of the blue field unoccupied.
“It looks like 25 other state flags,” said Maine flag expert David Martucci.
Indeed, the Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania flags also bear intricate seals on indigo fields — and that’s just looking at the northeast.
The current flag, he says, is a relic of the Civil War, said Martucci.
The 1901 flag design came through the Legislature via marine committees. Seamen wanted a flag that could be recognized at a distance. The blue star and pine tree fit the bill. It also bore no words, which meant it could be read from either side.
But by 1909, Martucci said, many state legislators were Civil War veterans. They wanted a state flag that resembled battle flags from the war. Most Union flags, back then, were blue, making them distinguishable from the red Confederate flags. Thus, the blue flag with the intricate state seal was adopted.
Martucci tried to get the 1901 flag reinstated through legislation in 1991 and 1997. The first time, his idea was opposed by the Adjutant General and didn’t garner a single vote in committee.
“I did better the second time around,” he said. “I got one vote.”
Today, there are only two known period copies of the tree and star design.
“A collector in Maryland has one and I have one,” Martucci said. “I bought it on ebay.”
His copy is only 12 inches-by-18 inches and made of silk.
Since there are no other antique copies, the Maine Flag Company hopes its new version will catch on.
The nylon material Field uses comes from an upstate New York factory. The Maine Stitching Company in Skowhegan cuts it into shape for her and finishes the edges. Then, Field uses a laser cutter to shape the pine tree and star before sewing them into place on both sides.
She also produces custom yacht club burgee flags and Maine merchant marine flags. Maine is one of only two states with a separate marine flag. It was adopted in 1939. It shows the same pine tree with an anchor wrapped around it. Above is the word “dirigo” and below is “Maine.”
There’s currently no clamor in the state Legislature to bring back the old-style flag. But that may be because not enough people have seen it.
So far, Field has made 79 of them. She numbers each one and is interested in seeing how high she can go and how wide she can get them spread across the state.
“I think it would be great if Maine adopted the 1901 flag again,” she said, “because it speaks to Maine — it speaks to Mainers.”
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