World Vexillology Day 2019

By John M. Hartvigsen FF (Fellow of the Federation)

Flags have been around for millennia, but Vexillology has only existed for about half a century.

What is vexillology and why is October 1st World Vexillological Day?

At seventeen-years-old Whitney Smith had already developed a passionate interest in studying flags.  During visits to the United Nations headquarters in New York, Whitney hoped to find the organization’s “flag department,” where he hoped to find a job.  Learning that the map department handled the UN’s display of national flags, he found that some eminent folks staffed the department.  “You who study maps are called cartographers,” Whitey began before asking, “but what are we called who study flags?”  The question didn’t bring a ready answer, but likely did bring some laughter.  Undeterred, Whitney consulted a Latin dictionary and found vexillum, the Latin word for flag.  Knowing that “ology” is a suffix taken from ancient Greek that means “the study of,” young Smith combined the two as “vexillology” plainly meaning the study of flags. 

I imagine the cartographers found the word wryly amusing and figured that seventeen-year-old Whitney Smith would return to high school and—finding an interest in sports, girls and cars—forget all about vexillology.  However, they certainly did not know Whitney Smith and his deep passion for all things concerning flags.

Flag of Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques

 Increasing his efforts over the next few years, Whitney organized the first international Congress of Vexillology in 1965, and two years later the International Federation of Vexillological Associations, which in French is known as Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques with the acronym FIAV came into being.  Today 52 regional, national, and multinational associations and institutions across the globe belong to FIAV.

That clarifies the meaning of vexillology but doesn’t explain why October 1st has been chosen as World Vexillology Day.  After earning his PhD in Social Science, Whitney teamed with a public-school teacher who shared his interest in flags, and together they founded the Flag Bulletin, the first scholarly journal dedicated to vexillology.  With this beginning Whitney Smith and Gerhard Grahl set out to create a new scholarly discipline.   The publication date for the first issue of the Flag Bulletin?  Why, October 1, 1961.  Over the next fifty years, Whitney Smith published 233 issues, and the journal has been revived by the Flag Research Center, which continues under new leadership since Smith’s death in 2016.

Whitney Smith, PhD (1940-2016)

Issue of the Flag Bulletin

 Colonial Flag Foundation sees anew with each Healing Field® or Field of Honor® flag display the impact that flags can have.  Not about military might, our massive flag displays are a way to honor those, who through their acts have honored the flag.  Because, flags after all have the meaning given them by those who fly them.

Folks all over the earth celebrate flags, and understanding these flags helps us understand those who fly them.  That is the task of vexillology, which is reason to join in the World-wide celebration for vexillology.  Check out the story of flags on line or at your local library and learn why they have such a great impact throughout history and around the world.

Join with us at Colonial Flag Foundation in celebrating World Vexillological Day, this October 1st.


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