Friday Flagging: North Providence

Each week, I explore the flags of Rhode Island’s cities and towns, along with examining their history and other civic symbols the cities and towns possess. Then I create sample redesigns to show what’s possible. This week, we head to North Providence, the state’s smallest town (Central Falls being the smallest city and municipality).

About North Providence

North Providence was formed in 1765, apparently at the request of the local farmers, whom the Town’s history says were unhappy with Providence’s orientation towards mercantile interests. The General Assembly granted the Town a charter on June 13, leading to the creation of the new North Providence, which ran from Johnston to the Blackstone.

North Providence is intriguing among the state’s towns that went through partition, because no other town was reduced as much as North Providence. In 1874, the populated areas of North Providence were split off from the town, forming Pawtucket and Providence’s new Ward 10. With it went areas that are today known as Manton, Mount Pleasant, Elmhurst, Valley, Wanskuck, Charles, Summit (where I was raised), and the northern half of Blackstone. Olneyville north of the Woonasquatucket also was included in the new ward, but maps from the time call the area “Ruttenburg” and place Olneyville across the river in then-Johnston (along with “West Providence”). The formation of Pawtucket meant that though North Providence was technically the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the industrial center of the town was now in Pawtucket.

The town lost more than nine out of every 10 residents. It took the rump North Providence a hundred years to regain the population. Like Lincoln and Cranston, it also lost its Town Hall. A new one was built in Centerdale.

North Providence had two notable connections to the Revolutionary War; first, the North Providence Rangers were a chartered militia unit, credited with saving the life of future US president James Monroe. Second, the town had a powder mill, Rhode Island’s only manufacturer of gunpowder for the war. It operated for three years; the enterprise met a sorry end when it exploded.

North Providence also benefited from the turnpike boom of the post-Revolutionary area, with five private toll roads crisscrossing the town, all of which are still major thruways in the city (Mineral Spring Avenue, Douglas Avenue and Smith Street are among them). Smith Street (previously the Powder Mill Turnpike) was the last private turnpike in the state; it was purchased by the Town the same year as partition.

In some ways, the development of the areas that are now North Providence are a mirror image of Johnston: where development in that town was centered on the eastern edge with a rural west, modern North Providence has developed in the west with what was a rural east. This is because of the Woonasquatucket River, which is the common water source for powering mills.

The town has eight villages by my count; Fruit Hill, Centerdale, Greystone, Lymansville, Allendale, Woodville, Geneva, and Marieville (arguably there are nine if you count Louisquisset). Most of these were textile mill villages; the exception is Marieville, which was primarily soap manufacturing, and populated by French Canadian and Italian immigrants. Fruit Hill also developed into a residential suburb for Providence, largely thanks to the electric streetcar that existed on Smith Street. A few of these villages were made possible by the construction of the Wenscott Reservoir.

From its nadir after partition (under 1,500 residents), the town’s population grew with the introduction of the automobile, the streetcar, and then later mid-20th Century suburbanization. It also had zoning friendly to apartment complexes, which has led to a lot of them. Today, the town is estimated by the US Census Bureau to have its most residents ever, at over 36,000.

What has North Providence Got Now?

North Providence has a coat of arms:

The Tercentenary Commission provides this emblazon.

Gules a fountain, a chief dancetty argent. A ball striped horizontally with blue and white wavy lines, on a red shield with a silver stripe at the top of the shield. The lower edge of the stripe is zig zag. The dancetty or indented line in these arms alludes to the two hills (Fruit Hill and Windmill Hill) and the fountain to Mineral Spring, three salient features of the town.

So, as Rhode Island municipal arms go, it’s both pretty decent, and connects with the town’s features. The fountain is a unique heraldic device, often used to represent a water source. It appears on one other set of town arms.

The town also has a seal.

I took this from the Town’s Facebook page. As town seals go, it’s mostly fine in conveying itself as a seal. It’s not mind-blowing good, and it’s a little amateur-looking (I’m not sure how important it is that the town hall’s full name and address appear). But it’s appropriately a seal.

The town also has a flag.

This was taken CRW Flags of the World. It was located by Valentin Poposki, who took it from the Town website. I was unable to find a better image, but I was able to watch videos from North Providence’s YouTube where the flag is present at inaugurations and memorials:

The most notable difference is that depending on the light, the flag seems to go from navy to light blue, but the rough outlines of the flag seem apparent.

Digitizing Existing Symbols

The arms are pretty simple. I had to create the fountain symbol in WappenWiki using some other shields and existing bezants (circles), but I managed to create it. And my version isn’t all that different.

I won’t be creating an alternative seal. It’s doing its job well enough (and I don’t have the time).

This is my best approximation of the flag.

Once again, we run into the “argent means silver mean grey” problem we saw last week with North Kingstown. It usually just means white in heraldry, so the shield shouldn’t be grey on red, it should be white on red.

But translation issues aside, let’s talk about this flag. North Providence actually appears to have a designed flag. Someone did more than slap the seal on a bedsheet here. And, while not excellent as a flag, you have to commend the town for having a designed flag.

That said, there’s a lot of headscratchers here. Why use a scroll to hold the symbols? Why a cloud? I think I get the symbols on the scroll, but surely there was a better way to symbolize mining, farming, religion (I assumed it was a church) and industrialization than this! My guess is that a child drew this. That feels a little harsh if it was a child, but children come up with good flags all the time! Alaska’s flag was designed by a child. Heck, even the current flag of the United States had its design submitted independently by a child.

And once again, we have the slogans. There’s a way to do text on a flag, and this really isn’t it. First, there’s almost no point in writing a town’s name like this on a flag. It defeats the purpose of making a flag. Writing “Town of North Providence, Rhode Island” on a rectangle is a sign, not a flag.

And I will never understand the obsession with incorporation dates. No flag is improved by placing incorporation dates on it.

All of that is to say, I can do much better,

Redesigning North Providence’s Flag

Designs 1a & 1b

Design 1a flips the arms on their side, and expands the fountain to take up more of the space. Design 2a stays vertical in orientation, since the dancetty is supposed to represent the two hills, but I’m not sure it really makes a great flag here.

The advantage of the dancetty is that you can increase the points to represent whatever you want. If you want two for the hills, fine; if you desire five for the turnpikes, that works as well; and if you want eight for the villages, that’s also doable.

Designs 2a, 2b & 2c

These designs do a few things. First, they all use a central star motif, one with eight points for the eight villages. But the star is representative of both the “North” in “North Providence” (as the North Star), and the explosion of the powder mill. Each star bears a fountain for Mineral Spring. Designs 2a and 2c are inversions of their colorings, but design 2b uses two blue lines to create five stripe representing the five turnpikes.

Unfortunately for 2b, the addition of those two lines makes the flag very reminiscent of the flag of Chicago, which may be an unwanted connection.

Design 3

Design 3 uses a cross. I generally think overt religious displays on flags aren’t great, but crosses are strong visual objects, and they work especially well on flags (which are four-sided). In this case, I’ve kept the fountain and added eight red stars for the villages. With just the fountain, the busyness of that item made the flag look off, so adding the stars helps unify the design.

Designs 4a, 4b & 4c

Designs 4a, 4b, and 4c uses eight stars for the villages and five stripes for the turnpikes. The stars are countercharged to the intersections of the stripes, which references the partition of the town. The majority of the flags’ areas are colored green, representing the importance of agriculture to the history of the town. 4b and 4c use a blue stripe to represent the Woonasquatucket, with 4b putting it in the center to represent its importance to the development of the town, while 4c places it at the hoist side to give it more visibility in the wind and to represent its actual geographic placement (this also places it in the “honor point” of the flag, so it still emphasizes the importance of the river).

Wrapping Up

North Providence has a really strong and unique set of design elements in the dancetty and the fountain. I’m also glad that they have a designed flag, and they use it! But as I said, that design is flawed, and I think, especially with my second set of designs, there are much better directions they could go with their flag.

With flag designs, you really want something that people will put up outside their houses, or appear in coffee shops, or hang behind cash registers. I think North Providence really has the potential to have something great. And that’s what you really want for a town that is all too easily forgotten by the rest of the state thanks to its small size.

But I’m not from North Providence (well, I might’ve been, had the town not been partitioned). If you are, let me know what you think. What did I miss? What absolutely needs to be represented on North Providence’s flag?

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