Everything you need to know about the Chicago Flag (and some you don't)

Posted by Michael Green on

Chicago has one of the greatest city flags on earth. Who designed the Chicago flag? What do each of the stars mean? Could (and should) Chicago ever add a fifth star to the flag?

The Chicago flag is one of the most iconic and one of the most well-designed city flags anywhere in the world.

The current flag of Chicago was designed by Wallace Rice. He won a flag design competition put on by the City Council in 1917. Rice was a Harvard educated author, and he also wrote for the Chicago Tribune.

Every truly great flag has a lot of meaning and the Chicago flag has a ton of symbolism baked into a seemingly simple design.

Chicago flag flying on building

CHICAGO FLAG DESIGN BREAKDOWN

The Chicago flag starts with a field of white with a 2:3 proportion. On the field are added two sky blue bars. The bars are 1/6th the height of the actual flag, and they are added a little bit less than 1/6th away from the top in the bottom, respectively (though, in practice, the stripes are usually found exactly 1/6 from the top and bottom).

Chicago Flag Stripe Heights

When you add those bars, it creates three separate white areas and those areas represent the three sections of the city; the North, the West and the South sides. If you didn't already guess, the two blue bars represent water. The top one representing Lake Michigan and the north branch of the Chicago River. And the bottom one representing the South branch and the Great Canal.

Map of Chicago showing where the major river segments are

And then we have the famous red six pointed stars. They're so famous that the NWSL team for Chicago is literally named the "Chicago Red Stars", and their branding is just parts of the flag. Wallace Race made them six pointed stars because he believed that five pointed stars represented a sovereign state, and Chicago is just a city. He had also never seen a six pointed star on a flag before, and so he thought this could be a really unique symbol for Chicago.

Some places, like Wikipedia, assign meanings to every single point on all four stars, but it's never referenced anywhere officially, so I'm not going to cover it here.

The original Chicago flag, designed by Wallace Rice, only had two stars, and those stars were positioned towards the hoist of the flag. Of course, now there are four stars. Each of the six pointed stars represents a major event in Chicago's history.

Original Chicago Flag Illustration with two stars

CHICAGO FLAG STAR MEANINGS

Fort Dearborn Star

The first star on the Chicago flag, the one nearest to the hoist, represents Fort Dearborn. It was a United States fort built in 1803 right next to the Chicago River. Fort Dearborn, was destroyed in the War of 1812, but the site is still visible on the corner of E. Wacker Drive and N. Michigan Ave.

Fort Dearborn footprint marker on the sidewalk

You can find markers along the ground and a plaque right outside of a...Smashburger.

Fort Dearborn plaque on the outside of a Smashburger restaurant

Even though the Fort Dearborn star is the first one on the flag, it is not one of the original two stars. In fact, it's the newest addition to the flag. It was added in 1939.

The Chicago Flag's first star was actually the latest addition in 1939

Chicago Fire Star

The second star is one of the originals. It represents the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This fire burned for two full days, destroying 17,000 buildings over three miles.

There's a lot of legends about how the great fire started, but nobody really knows for sure. What we do know is that it started in a barn on De Koven Street. On the site of the original barn stands the now Chicago Fire Academy.

The Great Fire looms large in Chicago's history. The MLS team in Chicago is named the Chicago Fire in their branding, as well as a ton of the elements we've been talking about.

 

World's Fair: Columbian Exposition Star

The third star is the other of the original two stars, and it represents the World's Fair: Columbian Exposition, which happened in Jackson Park in 1893.

So many things that we use today were debuted at that World's Fair: The zipper, the Ferris wheel, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc.

Of course, hosting a World's Fair honoring colonizer Christopher Columbus in a park named after Andrew Jackson which featured an exhibit called “White City” which idealized white male power and dominance...is a vibe. Even in 1893. Early civil rights leaders including Frederick Douglas wrote pamphlets against the fair. 

The only thing remaining in Jackson Park from the World's Fair is this building, which is now the Museum of Science and Industry.

Century of Progress Exposition Star

"Century of Progress Exposition" over the Chicago Flag's fourth star

The fourth star was added in 1933 and represents the Century of Progress Exhibition. This second World’s Fair event celebrated Chicago’s Centennial and focused on technological innovation. For this, they used the area around Burnham harbor and the newly reclaimed land which is now Northerly Island.

A FIFTH STAR?

So just like the United States flag adds a star with each new state, the flag of Chicago add’s stars as the city has major events. So could there be a fifth star? 

Chicago History Museum's Fifth Star Exhibit

At the Chicago History Museum, there is an ongoing exhibit where you can vote for the reason to add a fifth star. Some of the proposed reasons to add a star range from the 1992 Chicago flood, to sports team championships, to their response to COVID-19. 

Personally, after 83 years of having four stars, I think the Chicago flag is set in stone. Since it hasn’t changed in living memory for the majority of people, and the resistance of change to most humans, I think changing it would upset a very stable status quo. And think of the hundreds of thousands of people with Chicago flag tattoos. They would have to make a pretty tough decision…

MODERN USAGE

The most obvious sign that you have a good flag is when it’s used. A lot. And Chicago’s flag is EVERYWHERE. Just in the short time I visited, I saw it on tshirts, masks, tattoos, and countless actual flags flying. This thing is everywhere!

The usage of flags has changed so much in recent times. A flag now needs to work just as well as an emoji, and as an avatar, as it does flying on top of a building. The greatest city flags are able to become the base of a branding system for the city.

Chicago City Branding System

One of my favorite ways the Chicago Flag is used is in the city brand system. The City of Chicago has created an incredible brand identity centered around the red star and a blue stripe. All of their communication looks official, modern, well presented, and just beautiful. 

There you have it. Everything one could ever want to know about the amazing Flag of Chicago. Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts or what flag I should do next!

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