The Origins of the North American Vexillological Association

Adapted from an article printed in NAVA News, vol. 29, no. 2 (March / April 1996)

The beginning of the Association can be traced to the full-page notice published in The Flag Bulletin, Vol. VI, Nos. 1–2 (Winter 1966–1967), p. 36A. Several things are remarkable about that call which I made for a conference to take place on 3 June 1967. I had already selected the name “North American Vexillological Association” to emphasize the scientific character of the intended society, knowing that in the United States any name including the word flag would likely be misunderstood as being related only to the Stars and Stripes.

That invitation was addressed equally to the vexillologists of the United States and Canada. The great geographical spread of both countries and the relatively small number of vexillologists recommended this, but there was a more important underlying reason for this binational approach. It was clear that the vexillologists in Canada would find it difficult to assert the unique aspects of flag-study within the newly formed Heraldry Society of Canada—as was clearly seen in parallel situations in Europe over the following decade.

In the United States, on the other hand, the danger was always one of having patriotism rather than scholarship set the tone for activities and publications. There already existed several organizations dedicated to flag waving; at best the Association could contribute little to that field. Moreover it could hardly take a scholarly approach to flags in general if its emphasis was on honoring the United States flag.

The Flag Society of Australia faced a similar problem at the time of its founding in 1983, since the public there was embroiled in the question of whether the existing Australian national flag should be maintained, modified, or replaced by a totally new flag. Fortunately, the leadership of that society was able to steer a clear path by publishing objective information about all sides of the question, in addition to many other flag-related issues. Its credibility as a historical and scientific research organization has been preserved and the contribution it has made to knowledge of the “new flag question” in Australia will live on, while groups dedicated to supporting or opposing the existing Australian flag will disappear once the debate is resolved.

The conference held on 3–4 June 1967 gave North American vexillologists their first chance to meet in person, even though some had corresponded previously. This was particularly important because of the healthy mix of scholars, hobbyists, flag manufacturers, and those involved in flag promotion. Sites of flag-related interest were visited, including The Flag Research Center. I set up an exhibit of flag books and flags at our meeting rooms at Boston University; others brought small flags or publications as handouts. We discussed terminology, flag colors, flag preservation, ways of making vexillology better known, and the problems of communication and research in the fiekld. Several lectures were presented.

There was broad agreement that a formal association should be launched, not simply to represent North Americans at the international level in FIAV and at the International Congresses of Vexillology, but to offer the benefits of fellowship and scholarship to those throughout the United States and Canada on a regular basis. The types of membership, the outlines of what would become our bylaws, the concept of regular meetings, and encouragement for the interests of individual members were considered.

Most participants instinctively assumed that the Association would be part of The Flag Research Center and that The Flag Bulletin would become its journal. In contrast, I stressed that the Association must have its own independent personality. Just as Gary and I had created The Flag Research Center and would not be interested in handing it or editorship of The Flag Bulletin over to others, so the Association must have the full opportunity to develop as its members saw fit—with changing leadership, special projects, annual meetings in different places, etc. While The Flag Research Center would be glad to help as requested—such as making its mailing list available for soliciting membership—the Association should never feel beholden to the Center, should never feel that the Center’s permission was needed for any activity it wished to pursue, and should not in any way compromise the nonprofit status which everyone agreed the new Association should seek.

I asked only that the Association not directly compete with the Center in such a way that the existence of the latter was undercut—for example, by trying to duplicate the documentation services of the Center which benefit flag manufacturers and publishers. This was eventually reflected in the phrase in the bylaws stating that one of the objectives of the association was to “cooperate with the Flag Research Center and other national, regional, and international vexillological associations.” In the subsequent 25 years, I never felt it necessary to invoke that clause or to ask the Association to desist in some action it was taking or intended to take.

The Early Years

The 1967 organizational conference (“NAVA #0”) was followed five months later by our first annual membership meeting. It is often forgotten that the president chosen in June 1967 was Professor Pierre Lux-Wurm, I was secretary; there were no other officers. Professor Lux-Wurm organized the November 1967 meeting at the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in Purchase, New York where he was teaching.

The meeting was a great success. Newton Blakeslee, for many years editor of NAVA News, reported on the International Congress of Vexillology which had taken place in Zurich two months before. Dr. Clarence Rungee spoke about his large collection of flags and his broad experience in delivering lectures on the subject. The son of a Japanese flag maker came to our meeting; today he is the head of the Tanaka Flag Manufacturing Company. Others made contributions as well.

At this meeting one of our members introduced a motion urging the United States government to commemorate the salute to the United States flag which had taken place 200 years previously, at the Island of St. Eustatius in what is now the Netherlands Antilles. Later it was recognized that this kind of promotion, even if we had the resources to undertake serious work in this direction, was not really in keeping with the stated principles of our organization. Therefore, whenever subsequently one individual or group asked the Association to support a point of view or campaign having nothing to do with flag scholarship, we quite properly declined to become involved. On the other hand the Association did endorse a motion in November 1967 to encourage dictionary publishers to include “vexillology” and its cognates in their publications, as a small part of our drive for scholarly recognition.

At this meeting, the flag the Association still uses today was presented and the members adopted its bylaws, now many times amended. It agreed to co-sponsor the Third International Congress of Vexillology in Boston two years later and to have the Association represented in the official founding of the Fédération internationale des associations veillologiques which was to take place at the congress—thus becoming a charter member of FIAV. Lectures on various topics were delivered at our first annual meeting and plans were made for the next year. A slate of officers was elected and I began the first of ten one-year terms as president of the Association. A budget was drafted, discussion was held on how to increase membership, and different groups within the Association expressed their views about the direction we should take.

All of this, of course, sounds very familiar: one has only to attend a single meeting to see these patterns repeated more than a quarter of a century later. The important thing to remember is that in 1967 everything was brand new—we had no guidelines, no obligations, not even any examples from history or from other countries to follow in our work. I personally did not belong to any organization except the American Association of University Professors, which in fact meant no more than paying my dues and receiving its quarterly magazine.

Fortunately, as president during the years from 1967 to 1977, I had extraordinary people to assist me on the executive board, on committees, as editors of NAVA News, as lecturers, and as meeting organizers. To name but a few, the Association could not have survived those years without the help of people like Bob Gauron, Ashley Talbot, Gary Grahl, Emmet Mittlebeeler, Newton Blakeslee, Bill Spangler, Ralph Spence, Ken Huff, John Purcell, John Szala, Harold Diceman, John Lyman, and many others.

Our collective efforts lead to the establishment of certain very important principles for the Association in its early stages. It would be open to everyone interested in any kind of flags: there was room for hobbyists, scholars, publishers, flag manufacturers, and others. Our emphasis was to be on the study of flags (and related subjects such as state heraldry) as a scientific discipline rather than as a patriotic or commercial or religious endeavor.

Fellowship was to be an important part of our Association with ample chances to meet informally, to talk, to exchange ideas, show off collections, give the latest news, ask questions, trade (or even sell) items. On the other hand we sought and won recognition from the Internal Revenue Service as an educational, charitable, and scientific organization, rather than a fraternal society. While the expectation was that everyone would enjoy meetings, the more important premise was that our fundamental purpose was the advancement of knowledge.

For this reason, as time went on we brought in knowledgeable outsiders as guest speakers, began a program of publishing reprints of important old articles and pamphlets, visited museums and other sites of important flag collections, and encouraged members to professionalize their lectures and put them into written form for publication. We also undertook to share our knowledge and learn from others by sponsoring International Congresses of Vexillology—in 1969 in Boston, in 1977 in Washington, D.C., and (after I was no longer an officer) in Ottawa in 1981 and in San Francisco in 1987. The Association was also represented at every subsequent International Congress of Vexillology by an official delegate and by one or more members who participated.

NAVA News was firmly established as a regular publication, giving members important information about their society on a quarterly basis as well as informative and entertaining flag-related material. In addition to the reprint booklets, in those early years the Association regularly issued a handbook which included a list of members, their interests, and activities.

That membership grew regularly. At the first meeting in 1967, 17 people attended; a year later there were 58 members in all. By the time of our fifth anniversary in 1972, membership had grown to 123 with 55 attending the annual meeting. On our tenth anniversary in 1977 members had again more than doubled, to 258; attendance at that year’s meeting was 100.

The Future

Many important decisions made in the early years impact its present situation. FIAV became an association not of individuals, but of groups. We made a commitment to scholarly, impartial, international research and publication on flags of all kinds. We established a newsletter, a regular annual meeting, bylaws and objectives, recognition from the Internal Revenue Service, and many procedures which could help us achieve our ends, plus enthusiastic people willing to spend their time organizing this.

We avoided becoming involved in politics, partisanship for one flag or flag custom, and nationalistic/patriotic efforts that could produce conflict or divert our attention from real vexillological work which no other group was doing. The choice of a bi-national rather than a United States organization was part of that plan. The relationship of the Association to The Flag Research Center (based on mutual respect and separate work) was crucial, especially in the years when I headed both institutions. Even the type of members we sought to attract had important consequences.

In all this work an unspoken element of the greatest importance was the vision of the leaders. In an established institution, it is all too easy to focus on the next meeting, the next newsletter issue, the next project, the next lecture. Procedures already exist; traditions and routines continue from year to year. Just as organized heraldry lost sight of the fact that flags, supposedly part of its own domain, were being grossly neglected, so it may be that the very success of the Association today creates barriers to facing important issues that should be dealt with. Decisions about such questions as bylaw changes and the budget ultimately can only be made if the leadership of the organization clearly perceives where the Association is heading and what it must do to do to arrive there.

Since the Association is a democratic organization, that implies a full and frank discussion of options. Some individuals, of course, will be happy enough with what is being done now and will want no change; others may have very ambitious revisions for the future of the organization in mind. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing dialogue, the important thing is to acknowledge that foresight, goals, and decision-making are as important today and in the future as they were during the first decade of existence.

More information about Whitney Smith and the founding of NAVA can be found here.