Friday Flagging: The Best and Worst Municipal Flags in Rhode Island, Ranked

Having spent over a year looking through RI’s municipal flags, I figured I’d do something relatively simple and mindless, and rank them.

Should we rank flags? In my opinion, it’s not very productive and is almost always subjective based on the ranker’s personal feelings. However, it is undeniably entertaining, and it’s always good to collect the flags in one place so people can see for themselves and disagree.

So let me set out my very subjective ranking criteria.

  • Seals will be counted against the flag, but strong integration will raise the rank: S.O.B.’s are, in Perry Dane’s memorable phrasing, “the perfect storm of bad design.” I’ll rank flags lower that use seals in a particularly uninteresting way, especially one-color applications. That said, flags that use their seals in interesting ways, or at least use a variation of the field will be ranked higher.
    • Arms will rank higher than seals: Slapping your arms on a plain sheet is still bad, but it’s less bad than than a seal, since arms tend to be better designed than seals.
  • Displaying Native Americans will be counted against the flag: Displaying a Native American on your town or city flag, no matter how benign the depiction, is just not a good look. Given the way Rhode Island has treated its Native peoples, from the colonial era to the present day, unless the municipality has Done. The. Work. with the modern tribes, there’s just no way to say it’s alright.
  • Text is not inherently bad, but needless text will be counted against the flag: Extraneous text such as incorporation dates or municipal names will lower a flag’s rank. However, decent integration of text into the design and mottos (e.g., like on California’s flag) will not harm a flag’s rank.
  • High design complexity but not detail will be counted against the flag: So, this is a fairly precise concept. If your flag has two pilgrims dancing on it, with a purple cat smiling in the canton, I am unconcerned about whether there are buckles on the pilgrims’ hats or the number of teeth the cat has; I am more concerned about the number of unique, discreet things on the flag. This is because details are up to the artist, but the complexity of the design is often set in law. There’s no point fretting about details that can easily be changed by simply getting a new artist to draw a simpler design. Some complexity is necessary, but too much can obscure important features or make it harder to remember every piece of a design.

One last item of housekeeping: since I was unable to find any version of the flags of Jamestown, Johnston, or West Greenwich; so I won’t rank those.

RI Municipal Flag Rankings:

#36. Pawtucket

Pawtucket made a postcard, blew it up to flag size, and now flies it on a flag pole. It’s an utterly uninspired, outdated image of Slater Mill, there is no design to it, and worse, it not only tells you the city name, it includes both a founding date and its date incorporating as a city; but sideways and tightly kerned. Then they placed it on the fly end so it will be difficult to read in low or high wind situations. Worst flag in Rhode Island.

#35. Providence

Flag of Providence
Flag of Providence (recreated for the web by António Martins-Tuválkin, 2008 – retrieved from http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/us-ripro.html)

It brings me no joy to write this, but Providence comes in second to last. Providence’s flag mainly centers around a seal that is likewise a very literal scene, but it also tells an idyllic story of settler-Native friendship that just wasn’t borne out by the actual history. It’s a seal covered in text on as many places as the artist could fit it, the choice of blue on blue is uninspired and unhelpful, and it does nothing to enhance the city’s sense of self.

#34. Charlestown

Charlestown is just an Indian in a loincloth on a white flag, done in one color. They almost certainly just made a one color version of the Bowditch illustration from the 1930s, slapped it on their flag and called it a day. My understanding is that Narragansett-Charlestonian relations are not great, so it makes it even worse. It’s a poorly chosen symbol poorly executed.

#33. Bristol

Speaking of executions: Bristol also put a Native American on its flag, but in classic American ignorance about native peoples, depicts teepees, which weren’t used by Rhode Island’s Native nations (also speaking of executions, this is the town where Metacom was killed and mutilated in). I’m ranking it better than Providence or Charlestown because there’s more going on on this seal (and the flag is this centered on white) than just the Native, but it’s a bad depiction, and at the end of the day, the whole thing is an S.O.B.

#32. Tiverton

Tiverton’s seal is just too much, poorly integrated. The items on its seal, the Columbia Rediviva which the Columbia River is named after and Fort Barton (named after the commander of the raid that captured a British general in Portsmouth) form tenuous connections between Tiverton and momentous events that happened miles from the town. The only thing really Tiverton-specific on this flag is the town’s own arms, which have been relegated to a mere quarter of the space on the seal.

#31. Central Falls

Central Falls’ depiction of Cogswell Tower is a good example of why SOBs shouldn’t be flown, and they definitely shouldn’t be flown in one-color versions. Though this is a bad digital trace of the design, even the real version isn’t easy to understand at distance, and when looking at the reverse of the flag, the whole design is flipped and even less legible.

#30. South Kingstown

This isn’t getting knocked for the detailed arrowhead, it’s getting knocked because the seal tries to squeeze text into every inch of itself, and the end result is a cramped, one-color SOB that would be hard to distinguish at distance from a number of other Rhode Island municipal flags.

#29. Richmond

Richmond at least went simpler than the last two. Masao Okazaki made a much more faithful rendition for CRW Flags of the World, but since I’m not ranking on details, it’s irrelevant. It’s a one-color seal; I don’t know why Washington County towns like to inform us that they’re in Washington County on their flags, but it’s not an effective way of doing it; and buildings aren’t great symbols to build around, because they often get knocked down or forgotten. Case in point on the latter: this is the second building to appear on Richmond’s seal, because everyone forgot what the first building was supposed to be.

#28. Narragansett

Center of Narragansett's Flag
Center piece of Narragansett’s flag

If I could punish Narragansett for not picking any of the alternative designs it was presented with when they redesigned in 2006, and instead going with this S.O.B., I would, but that would mean the racist flags would rank higher. If you changed the name on this flag to any other coastal town in New England (possibly the whole country), this flag would likely work just as well. Release the 2000 Hoxsie-Quinn version (I would like to see it)!

#27. North Providence

I admire North Providence’s pluck, if little else. This is just an incredibly busy flag. In a lot of ways, it’s as if someone spread a whole seal’s worth of symbols across the flag. There’s just a lot of design choices that don’t seem to have a clear reason behind them. It’s a good use of the space of the flag and it centers the arms well, but that’s the nicest thing I can say about it.

#26. Coventry

Coventry at least gets points for color variations with its seal. At the end of the day, though, it’s an S.O.B. that buries its best element, the elephant and castle, under a bunch of useless faff.

#25. Cranston

Cranston puts its full achievement of arms (though I’m unsure of who gave them the helm and crest) on its flag, which is fine. Masao Okazaki also did a more faithful version of these as well. It’s better than a total S.O.B., but frankly, it’s a lot. Especially when the arms are so solid. Also, the decision to put both its town and city incorporation dates seem a little bit like birth and death dates, as though the city only existed between 1754 and 1910.

#24. Foster

Foster relies mostly on its arms to carry the weight of the design. Unfortunately, they’re trapped within a seal that adds nothing to the design and shrinks them to a much more difficult to read size.

#23. Cumberland

Cumberland chose a really weird version of its arms for its flag. I’m not sure if this is in use anywhere else in the town. However, it’s at least interesting to look at. I don’t think the scrolls are well integrated with the design, unfortunately.

#22. Westerly

Westerly’s S.O.B. is such an S.O.B. it literally says “official seal” on the flag. Still, because the seal is basically a white oblong it looks like it’s a real variation in the field, making it feel a bit less like it was suddenly tacked onto the flag. And at the size chosen, it allows the arms to be more legible.

#21. Middletown

Middletown seems like it should be pretty terrible, but in real life, this flag is much better than you’d think. This is a poor trace of it, but for all its S.O.B.-ness, it solidly relies on you being able to identify Boyd’s Windmill, and it executes that in a way that’s not too hokey. Even the ornate detailing on the seal is charming.

#20. Warren

Warren incorporates its arms into its seal and then blows that up to nearly the whole height of the flag. Yes, it’s got the town name on it, and the incorporation year, but because they’re done in the same manner as the seal’s ring itself, they almost disappear into the white background, and allow you to focus on the flag itself.

#19. Smithfield

I toyed with placing Smithfield lower, because I think it’s just a bad execution of the arms with text. There is so much extraneous text on there, in a really dull sans serif. You already have a unique identifying symbol: the arms! You don’t need anything else. If there’s a bad way to do a flag with arms, this is it. Also, the “i” in “incorporated” really is lowercase.

#18. East Providence

I’m not arguing this is an excellent flag, but it does do more than most Rhode Island flags. The three stars are actually something unique to this flag that makes it easy to identify, and the relatively simplicity of the three geese works. No one will ever be able to read that incorporation date, though.

#17. Warwick

You can be an S.O.B., but if you’re a good looking seal, you can go a lot farther. It’s not great, but it is nicer to look at than many of those that came before. Also, someone should decide whether that’s a wyvern or an eagle (I’m Team Eagle).

#16. Hopkinton

Hopkinton’s is a little notional, as I wasn’t even sure if this is their flag, but this is another one where the poor color contrast of yellow and white works to its advantage, allowing the arms to bear the design weight. And they are, if nothing else, very unique arms.

#15. New Shoreham

Look, when other places put the town name on the flag, it’s a needless detail that should be solved by having a flag in the first place. When New Shoreham does it, it’s to explain that Block Island is New Shoreham and vice versa. But ultimately, the flag centers the arms, which are excellent arms (though my rendition doesn’t quite do them justice).

#14. Burrillville

Burrillville also has great arms. There’s not much else to say here. They didn’t need to put the town name or incorporation date on the flag, but damn if those aren’t good arms. They don’t really reflect on Burrillville though, since they are just the arms of the Burill family.

#13. North Smithfield

A.O.B.s (arms on a bedsheet) like this are kind of all the same, there’s not too much you can praise or say differently. I really love North Smithfield’s canting arms though, and I wish they would’ve popped down south and told Smithfield, “hey, just write the text in all caps in a classy serif font.” Like Hopkinton, the yellow text on a white field allows you to ignore it and just focus on the arms. My one knock is that the black outline makes it feel like a soccer team logo.

#12. Scituate

It’s another A.O.B. These are almost all interchangeable. I think Scituate’s arms work better than most, because they are more specific to the town. The scroll with the town name also gives it a top-heavy feel that bothers me. That it’s a different color from the arms is bothersome as well.

#11. Exeter

I love the Exeter castle, even if they adopted the exact same arms as Exeter, UK, instead of the horizontally divided ones that they were given by Howard Chapin. And the town name underneath (in the same colors as the arms) makes it feel more balanced and connected than the awkward Scituate flag above.

#10. Lincoln

Lincoln’s flag relies on it having good arms. They didn’t go overboard on the incorporation date, shrinking the text to just a simple “INC.” instead of writing the full word. They incorporated the town name into the arms in a way that doesn’t feel out of place (although it is needless). The one thing I don’t quite like is the way the arms curve at the top. If they were straight and the shield was the same size as the scroll with the incorporation date, it’d make the whole design feel a bit more unified.

#9. North Kingstown

I admire North Kingstown for the bold choice to go with a grey flag. I don’t think the pard faces work very well, and the scroll holding the town name doesn’t feel well-integrated with the arms. Still, it’s unique and readable.

#8. Glocester

Glocester has good arms, though I don’t love the arrowheads from just a respect of Native people’s position. The town name isn’t needed, but it does seem like a natural part of the arms, so it doesn’t feel as disjointed as some of the other scrolling we’ve seen. It is just another A.O.B., though.

#7. Woonsocket

Whatever else you can say about Woonsocket, its flag is not bad. It’s pretty good. I think you could make a case for it being even higher than #7. It is a nice triband with a nice yellow disc in the center, and something that sets the triband apart in the upper fly. However, I have to give it demerits for centering the seal, there should really be a unique, easily legible symbol there. Also, while I agree with my father that the anchor in the corner gives it something unique, in my view, it adds more useless text, and for legibility in all wind conditions, it should really be set in the canton at the top left of the flag.

#6. West Warwick

In a world of blues and whites, West Warwick dares to be different, going with a sumptuous red field that perfectly bathes its arms in its crimson tide. If this were just the arms on red, this would be #2, no doubt. But they spoil it by uselessly writing the town name across the flag in all versions, and so they arrive at #6.

#5. Newport

I have a suspicion people will criticize me for ranking this so highly. Newport’s flag is extremely disjointed in color choices and symbols, but the design is not fundamentally bad, laurels and Newport tower and motto of “love will conquer all”. It could be much better, but when you’re dealing with RI municipal flags, you don’t have to excel to rank highly, you just have to semi-competently execute yourself. And Newport has a semi-competent flag that’s unique and identifiable. They could stand to lose the scroll and maybe go to a two-color flag, though.

#4. Barrington

Likewise, I’m expecting flak for ranking this above West Warwick, but the difference here is that Barrington actually did something a little more involved than slap a shield bearing their arms on the flag. The bones of this flag are good, even if they buried that good under a bunch of text. If this flag was just the sword on blue, that flag would be a standout among RI municipal flags.

#3. East Greenwich

This flag is unmistakably East Greenwich’s and they probably don’t need to worry about anyone stealing the design. Like Newport it’s very disjointed. Like North Providence, it’s doing too much. But someone designed this flag, and they certainly gave it their all. It could stand to lose the scrolling and the text, but I think it’s a respectable third place.

#2. Little Compton

Little Compton said “hey, let’s just let our arms do the talking” and then they slapped those arms on a white flag in as large a version as they felt comfortable with, and then called it a day. You have to respect it, because it worked. So many Rhode Island municipalities are afraid to go the full A.O.B., they hedge by throwing on the municipal name and incorporation dates. Little Compton has guts and it netted them second place on a blogger’s ranking of RI municipal flags. So well worth it.

#1. Portsmouth

Portsmouth does what virtually every municipality in Rhode Island should do (not you though, Charlestown and Providence), and turns their arms into a full on flag. When I saw that Portsmouth uses this flag, my jaw dropped. It is outrageous they just don’t have dozens of these hanging along Routes 114 and 138, just so they can show off how great their flag is to everyone in Rhode Island. Not only is it a good execution of the arms as a flag, the father of vexillology himself, Whitney Smith, theorized that Portsmouth’s stars influenced the selection of stars on the United States flag. It is a simple, unique, and utterly recognizable design. Portsmouth should just be incredibly proud.

4 comments

  1. How fun to read this ! I am no vexillologist, but this is an amazing ( and entertaining) collection of flag and arm facts that deserves to be presented at a conference to those who are vexillologists ! Really!

  2. Very entertaining read! Have to imagine Barrington gets #1 if they removed all that text, though I enjoy the slight off centeredness of the “R.I.”

    1. There are a few flags in the world, like Trieste, Italy or Chimay, Belgium that just use a simple weapon. The execution of the sword could be improved, but done well enough (maybe akin to the sword on Haarlem, Netherlands’ flag), it’d be a memorable and iconic flag. It is not there now, but the flag has good fundamentals.

  3. I think Block Island deserves Top 10 status. EG is far too busy and while someone took the time to design it, that person used the brightest crayons available in the box, they need to be moved back some, lol! Portsmouth and Little Compton are solid choices. Although, don’t you think it’s a little odd that someone in LC seems to be inviting people to shoot arrows at geese? Thanks for all the work you’ve put into this, Sam, I’ve enjoyed these updates immensely.

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