Behind Bountiful Banners: Pursuing a Lifelong Passion, Whitney Smith Has Documented the Origins and Significance of Hundreds of Flags of the Hemisphere

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Many people might be vexed by the word vexillologist, but not Whitney Smith. Because that is what he is: one who studies the history and symbolism of flags. In fact, as a teenager, Smith himself coined the term vexillology, by combining the Latin word for flag, vexillum, with the Greek root for the study of logia. Today, it and related cognates have become accepted lexicographically.

"I am essentially someone who studies flags rather than waves flags," Smith once said in an interview in the Boston Globe. "I think of patriotism as doing things that are of benefit to the country: voting, working to change unjust laws, promoting something like the Equal Rights Amendment. The rest is nice, but it's not a substantive act."

Smith's interest in flags began in 1946, when at age six he received from his father a small, cotton United States flag on Patriots Day, in his birthplace, Lexington, Massachusetts. That sparked a childhood interest, which led to collecting flags, armchair exploration of the topic through books and articles, and constant correspondence to satisfy his boundless curiosity. After undergraduate studies in political science at Harvard University and a doctorate in the same field at Boston University (where he taught for a time), Smith cofounded a bimonthly journal, The Flag Bulletin which since 1961 has published more than two hundred issues for the benefit of scholars and amateur enthusiasts worldwide. In 1962 Smith also established a consulting service, the Flag Research Center, which he still operates from his home in Winchester, Massachusetts. He draws upon a collection of 13,000 volumes, 250,000 documents, and 2,000 flags--probably the largest of its kind in the world--to answer even the most arcane inquiries from clients: a filmmaker needs information on campaign banners during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, or a model kit company requires details regarding flags of a long-defunct shipping line. During his career Smith has written twenty-three books, including Flags Through the Ages and Across the World a widely regarded reference work.

Currently, he is serving as editor for an exhaustive two-volume, twenty-five-hundred-page Encyclopedia of National Symbols (over half of which he is writing himself), scheduled to be published by Harcourt Brace in 2005.

In a corner of his living room, Smith has a replica of a globe made in 1493. "That was a bad year for making a globe," he says with a smile as he traces his finger across its surface. "You come from Spain across the ocean and hit Japan and China. No Americas!" Other than the globe, which he bought for the tiny flags indicating each country, his house is remarkably devoid of flags. Still, a couple flag-related items matter to him in a personal sense. In 1964, as a logo for his Flag Research Center, he adopted a design proposed by British artist Louis Loynes. It is a heraldic zephyr consisting of a ship in the form of a swan, a reminder that at a very early date flags flew from ships. Significantly, the ship's ensign blows forward, whereas the head of the swan looks backward to suggest that to progress in the study of flags, one must examine the past.

"Numerous countries of the Americas adopted flags containing the so-called colors of liberty--blue, white, red," explains Smith. "The Dutch were the first to use this combination dining their uprising against Spain during the Eighty Years War, then it continued during the American Revolution, and finally the French Revolution with the tricolor, one of the most influential designs in a global sense. Under the aucien regime you had this terribly complex coat of arms: orders of knighthood and crowns, scepters, orbs, floating angels, fleur-de-lis, but the revolution comes in and sweeps all that away and sets up in orderly fashion three equal vertical stripes--liberty, equality, fraternity. They even did optical studies to adjust the proportions to make them look equal. …