Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty and the bald eagle are all instantly recognizable icons of the United States, but the American flag is not only ubiquitous, it’s changed over time, and is easily adapted for interpretation. Historical flags, folk art, ephemera and artifacts featuring versions of the flag design are on display in “Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag,” now showing at the Frazier History Museum.
The exhibit comes from the collection of prominent graphic designer Kit Hinrichs, who says that the flag’s infinitely adaptable design is part of its appeal to him as both a collector and a designer.
“Historically, it’s the only flag, to my knowledge in the world, that has change built into it, in that the number of stars that it has depends on the number of states that it has and may have in the future,” says Hinricks. “As a designer, things that run variations on a theme are very important to what we’re always trying to solve in communications problems.”
The collection began with one flag, an 1865 version with 36 stars hand-sewn by Hinricks‘ great-great-great-great aunt Ida Peppercorn. The family heirloom is the most emotionally significant to Hinricks, whose collection now numbers around 5,000 flags and flag-inspired artifacts.
“And that’s everything from actual flags to political memorabilia to postal stamps to Navajo weavings to quilts to folk art to fine art, photography. Anything that incorporates a flag into it in any form for any reason I will collect,” he says.
Hinricks is the author of two books on the subject: “Stars and Stripes: Ninety-Six Top Designers and Graphic Artists Offer Their Personal Interpretations of Old Glory” and “Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag.”
The oldest piece in the collection is a pre-Civil War flag that includes California among the state stars. But Hinricks prefers the one-of-a-kind artifacts, those hand-made pieces that interpret the flag design along an individual’s personal feelings and modes of expression.
Originally a purely ceremonial symbol of government, the flag wasn’t always so personal to Americans, he says, but when the Confederate army threatened to fly their flag over the Capitol during the Civil War, the people of the Union embraced the design on a personal level.
“That began what they call the cult of the flag,” says Hinricks. “It became something that was in the hands of the public then. They began to be involved in caring for the flag in stating their own political positions at that point.”
“Long May She Wave” opened February 22 and runs through July 6 at the Frazier History Museum.