The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The birth of the D.C. flag

The District of Columbia may not be a state but can we agree that its flag is the coolest in the land? Bold, elegant and memorable, it looks good slapped on just about anything, from a T-shirt to a beer can. But where did the flag come from? Who created it? What were its rivals? Here is the story of how D.C.’s very own stars and stripes came together.

The Mills Building

It started here, in the Mills Building, at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Charles A.R. Dunn worked on the eighth floor, where he was employed as an illustrator for Nation’s Business, the magazine of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Dunn was a native Washingtonian. He was born in 1894, graduated from Central High, studied at the Corcoran School of Art, and exhibited his paintings there and at the Phillips Collection.

The Flag Book

Before Dunn served in the Army in World War I, he worked as an engraver on a project that was to become famous to vexillologists — flag enthusiasts — everywhere. It was the October 1917 issue of the National Geographic, the so-called “Flag Book.” It had illustrations of flags from around the world. Dunn found the flag depicted for the District of Columbia unsatisfactory.

An unofficial District flag

Dunn saw that the District had no official, authorized flag in the National Geographic book. Instead, the magazine published an image of the flag of the D.C. Militia, the precursor to today’s National Guard. The design featured a hatchet. Get it? George Washington used a hatchet to chop down a cherry tree. Dunn was not impressed.

Another unofficial D.C. flag

Nor did Dunn think much of another D.C. Militia flag that was often used in place of an official District flag. This one featured the dome of the U.S. Capitol illuminated by a sunburst. In fact, that flag is still in use by the D.C. National Guard.

Looking to Maryland

Dunn pondered ideas for a District of Columbia flag. “I was particularly attracted by the State Flag of Maryland, because of its beauty and distinction,” he later wrote. “As you know, the basis of the flag’s design is the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore and so conforms to the laws of heraldry.”

By George, he’s got it

When Dunn got out of the Army and took his job in the Mills Building, he had time to doodle. “It was natural that the coat of arms of George Washington, the three red stars above two red stripes on a white field, would suggest itself as a design for a District of Columbia flag,” Dunn wrote. In February of 1924 Dunn sent his design to the Washington Evening Star newspaper. That same year, a bill was introduced in the Senate District Committee to decide upon an official Washington flag.

Where’s the flag?

As with a lot of things in Washington, nothing happened. Then in 1938 the issue heated up again. People remembered Dunn’s flag design, but that didn’t stop hopefuls from throwing their artist’s berets in the ring. The above design is almost psychedelic in its complexity: Thirteen concentric stars of diminishing size —  representing the original colonies — frame a silhouette of the U.S. Capitol dome. Around it are 48 stars, representing the U.S. states at that time. It was designed by Mrs. George T. Hawkins and was a favorite of the American Liberty Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Seal test

Dunn wrote that when he had scrutinized state flags while working on the National Geographic’s flag issue, he “became aware of a lack of good design in many of them. In fact some were just the state seal in the center of a blue field.” That’s pretty much what this proposed design is: the District’s seal on a plain background. It’s not something you’d want tattooed on your bicep.

 Pick me! Pick me!

This is another design that was proposed in 1938 for the District’s flag. There’s a lot going on here, from the old D.C. Militia design at the top, to the Washington family coat of arms on the eagle’s shield, to the very poor hyphenation of the word “Constitution.”

Finally, on Oct. 15, 1938 the Flag Commission and the Fine Arts Commission held a joint meeting. Dunn’s design was picked. As Dunn wrote: “I think it is a good flag, and I am glad that an early dream of mine came true.”

RIP, Charles A.R. Dunn

Charles A.R. Dunn died on April 11, 1978. He was 83. His obituaries in The Post and the Star recounted his career — including membership in the Society of Washington Artists, the Landscape Club of Washington the Washington Arts Club — but there wasn’t a single mention of his greatest creation: the flag of Washington, D.C. Dunn was buried at Parklawn Memorial Gardens in Rockville, Md. Not long ago I visited his grave and left a little memento.