Flashback Friday: The Fight Over Nebraska's State Seal and Flag
By James E. Potter
Florence Hazen Miller of Crete, right, with the Nebraska state flag for which she was the leading advocate. The woman on the left is unidentified. RG3753-01
A 2015 poll conducted by the North American Vexillogical Association (NAVA) ranked Nebraska's state flag dead last out of all fifty states. It is little consolation that the Montana flag came in forty-ninth, the Kansas flag forty-eighth, the South Dakota flag forty-seventh, and the Minnesota flag forty-sixth. One thing these flags have in common is that each features a circular state seal on a national blue background. From a distance, hoisted on a flagpole, there is little to distinguish one from another. This combination of a nearly unreadable seal on a plain background probably accounts for the flags’ low ranking in the world of vexillology. Montana, Kansas, and South Dakota may have edged Nebraska in the poll only because the state names also appear on their banners separate from the seals. (See the article here.)
A list published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1920 indicated that each of the other forty-seven states had already adopted a flag. Nebraska finally got its flag in 1925. The story of how that happened begins in 1921 with the introduction in the legislature of a bill to create a commission to redesign the Nebraska state seal adopted in 1867 (the same seal we use now). The bill also called for the new seal to be used as the primary feature on a state banner. Rep. George A. Williams of Fairmont introduced the bill at the urging of the Nebraska Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), whose main interest seemed to be the flag. The Nebraska State Journal in Lincoln commented about the state seal when it learned that Williams had introduced the bill to redesign it. “It must be conceded that it is archaic in conception and mediocre in drawing, but the fact remains that it is an interesting creation and that its main features still have vital significance. . . . Agriculture, transportation, and the mechanical trades remain our greatest industries. The steamboat has disappeared. The Rocky Mountains never belonged in the picture, perhaps, but in view of the importance they held to the plainsmen of fifty and seventy-five years ago, their presence is easily accounted for.”[i] Bertram Goodhue, the architect of the Nebraska State Capitol, designed a new state seal that was more symbolic in nature. When the legislature met in January 1925, Mrs. Florence Hazen Miller of Crete, a staunch advocate of a Nebraska flag, prevailed upon Rep. J. Lloyd McMaster of Lincoln to introduce HR 67, a bill to create an official state banner. The bill specified that the banner would be national blue with the seal of Nebraska in the center. It said nothing about the redesigned Goodhue seal, so if it were to pass, the original and still official state seal would appear on the banner.
The bill moved ahead in the Nebraska House, where it passed 91 to 4 on February 9 without amendment, and was sent to the senate.[iii] There, HR 67 was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where it languished until late March; then it was amended to substitute the Goodhue seal for the old seal and reported to the floor. The Lincoln Star noted that the amended bill would probably pass the senate and go back to the house, “where it is understood that there is some opposition to the adoption of the new seal. . . . [T]hough there may be some difficulty encountered over the seal, it is believed the banner will not be molested.”[iv] But there was opposition to the new seal designed by Goodhue in the senate. On March 27 the Lincoln Evening State Journal reported that in a vote “that was never recorded,” the senate failed to pass the amended flag bill but before the vote could be announced, Sen. Charles Meacham Jr. of Dorchester, representing Mrs. Miller’s district, asked for the bill to be returned to the committee of the whole “to strike out the senate amendment which on the previous day had substituted the seal designed four years ago for the old state seal to be used in connection with a state banner.” The amendment was promptly stripped from the bill, which then passed the senate on a vote of 32-0. Only Sen. Henry Behrens, a Beemer banker, offered remarks recorded in the senate journal, though other senators must have shared his sentiments: “The Great Seal of the state has served the people so well in the early days of this great State of Nebraska I am not ready to discard it now.” On July 16, 1925, the new Nebraska banner, four and one-half by five and one-half feet with a gold fringe and the state seal in a field of national blue, was unveiled and presented to Gov. Adam McMullen. It had been manufactured by the National Permanent Decoration Company of Mason City, Iowa, at a cost of $100. A state banner of the official design had already been flown, however. At one second after midnight on July 1, 1925, the day the banner law took effect, a small Nebraska flag with a fifteen-inch-diameter state seal embroidered in gold and silver was hoisted on a pole in Crete, probably by Mrs. Miller, and it remained flying until 8 a.m.[v] Then, in 1963, State Senator Eugene Mahoney of Omaha sponsored the passage of LB 556, which designated the banner as the “official state flag” and further provided that it could be flown on such occasions and in such places where the U.S. flag would be flown. Having succeeded in giving the state flag more visibility in 1963, some nine years later Mahoney decided to try more drastic measures to rectify what he saw as this Nebraska symbol’s shortcomings. During the legislative session of 1972, he introduced a resolution to study changing the flag’s design. Newspaper articles quoted Mahoney as saying that the Nebraska state flag was “the homeliest in the nation” and “a poor symbol for the state.” Both the Lincoln and Omaha papers invited readers to weigh-in, the Journal soliciting designs from the public and the World-Herald printing a ballot that readers could mark and send in.[vi] The response could not have been what the senator expected. Samples of new flag designs that the Journal-Star illustrated (of some two hundred received) seemed uninspired or graphically obtuse. The World-Herald’s ballot tallied 2,091 votes against changing the flag’s design and only 342 in favor, a seven to one landslide. Elizabeth G. Hall, the granddaughter of Isaac Wiles, the state seal’s originator, could not understand why the legislature would waste time and money redesigning the flag because the current one “is very appropriate. There’s no reason to mess around with screwy little things like that. We could spend our money in far better places.”[vi]
After all was said and done, Nebraska’s state seal has remained unchanged since 1867, and the state flag is still just as it was adopted in 1925. Nebraskans have been steadfast in clinging to the state symbols they have grown used to. Yesterday, on Jan. 5, 2017, Omaha State Sen. Burke Harr introduced Legislative Resolution 3, which would establish a task force to design a new state flag and submit a recommendation. The comments on the Omaha World Herald's article show that Nebraskans have a lot of strong opinions that the flag should remain as it is. Read their article here. We'll have to wait and see if 2017 brings change that failed in 1921 and again in 1972 because, as we all know, history loves to repeat itself. To read the rest of the story of how Nebraska adopted its seal and flag, please read "The State Flag and the Great Seal: The Historical Ups and Downs of Two Nebraska Icons" in the Winter 2016 edition of Nebraska History magazine. You can purchase your copies at any of our Landmark stores, or by visiting this web site.
James E. Potter (1945-2016) worked for the Nebraska State Historical Society from 1967 until his untimely death earlier this year. He served variously as an archivist (1967-1985), as editor of this journal (1985-2002), and as senior research historian (2002-2016) while remaining on the editorial staff. Along the way he earned a reputation for broad and deep knowledge, careful scholarship, generosity, and good humor. This is his final article for Nebraska History, written in anticipation of the state’s sesquicentennial in 2017.
[i] LR 75, Journal of the Nebraska Legislature, Eighty-second Legislature, second session (1972), 1357, 1712; “Ideas for New State Flag Requested,” Sunday Journal-Star, Apr. 9, 1972, 1B; “Cast a Ballot in ‘Flag Poll,’” Omaha World-Herald, Apr. 15, 1972, 1. [ii] “New State Flag now on Display,” Lincoln Star, July 16, 1925, 2; Mrs. B. G. Miller account, Nebraska DAR Scrapbook, 1924-26, RG 3823, Nebraska DAR, Box 3, f. 5, NSHS. This “first” state banner was hanging in the Secretary of State’s office in the capitol as of January 2012. [iii] HR 67, House Journal, Legislature of Nebraska, Forty-third Session (1925), 114, 476 [iv] “State Banner Bill Advanced,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 26, 1925, 1. [v] “The State Seal,” Nebraska State Journal, Feb. 3, 1921, 4. [vi] “Deadline for State Flag Ideas Extended,” Sunday Journal Star, Apr. 23, 1972, 1B; “Vote 7-1 Against New State Flag,” Sunday Omaha World-Herald, Apr. 23, 1972, 1; “Miss Hall: Changing Flag Plan ‘Screwy,’” Sunday Journal-Star, July 2, 1972, 2B.