When the Monitor ran a story recently that some residents in Boscawen were disagreeing about the design of a town flag, it produced this reaction among an awful lot of readers: “Wait – towns have flags?!? Who knew?”

Not many people, it turns out, because the idea that towns or cities should have an official flag exists in a sort of limbo. “They don’t have any kind of legal status, so there are no particular requirements,” wrote Cordell Johnson in an email response to the Monitor.

Johnson is an attorney who spent years as government counsel for the New Hampshire Municipal Association, where he saw every legal issue that New Hampshire communities encounter. Town flags wasn’t one of them: “That issue never came up, so far as I know.”

Not all towns or cities have official flags but many do. How many, though, is unclear: Monitor queries to the state Archives and some historical societies were unable to find any official list.

The best source for information about New Hampshire town flags is a private website established by, of all things, a store in Maryland called CRW Flags. Much of its information comes from a 2003 publication by James Croft through the North American Vexillological Society – vexillology being the study of flags – called “American City Flags.”

Locally, Concord appears to be the only municipality to have designated an official flag. (If we missed one, let us know.) As defined in Section 1-2-3 of the Concord City Code, it shows the Concord Coach on a white background with the words Concord New Hampshire in all-block letters. The flag is not prominently displayed and even if you’re a City Hall regular there’s a chance you didn’t know it existed.

According to the CRW Flags website, Concord had a different flag up until 1979 that followed the common design of the city seal (virtually all municipalities have an official seal for legal reasons) placed on a plain background. In 1979, according to a Monitor article cited by the website, the current design was adopted with some variation, including a white dove of peace inside one of the blue stripes, following a months-long search by a committee headed by City Councilor John Upton.

Flags for New Hampshire towns or counties – at least two of the state’s 10 counties have a flag – don’t operate under regulations, guidelines or even much in the way of traditions.

“It’s sort of like voting someone as the town’s citizen of the year. There are no rules. The town just decides how it wants to do it,” said Johnson.

Deciding what you want to do isn’t always easy. That came up in Boscawen last month when the Beautification Committee said the town might like to have a flag.

Town resident Josh Crawford, a vexillologist, suggested five designs, each with green backgrounds, most having a simple stripe, many baring the town name or date of incorporation and one of two town landmarks: the Hannah Duston statue and the Boscawen Congregational Church, both of which are on the town’s seal.

This produced objections from at least one town resident on historical, if not aesthetic, grounds. The future of a Boscawen flag remains murky.

The most public debate over a New Hampshire municipal flag came in 2017 when Manchester voters considered the idea of changing the Queen City’s flag, which follows the boring seal-on-plain-background pattern. Three replacements were suggested, each echoing the vexillological ideal of bright simple patterns hinting at city history, but all were soundly trounced in an election.

The situation is more formalized for national and state flags, of course.

The design of the American flag is set in legal stone and there are well-known rules for flying it – no other flag should be higher on the flag pole, for example – and for disposing of an old flag. Note that those are part of the United States Code but are not legally enforceable by the feds: The Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that federal laws against flag desecration were unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.

They seem to be legally enforceable by state police, however. New Hampshire state law (RSA 646-A:2) says “It shall be unlawful to knowingly desecrate a flag of the United States while it is properly displayed,” and goes on to make this act a misdemeanor. Desecration “shall include burning, defacing, mutilating, destroying or trampling upon the flag.”

The design of New Hampshire’s flag (“The body or field shall be blue and shall bear upon its center in suitable proportion and colors a representation of the state seal … surrounded by a wreath of laurel leaves with nine stars interspersed”) is set in state law, RSA 3:2, as is the design of the state seal, which surprisingly for a state with the country’s shortest ocean coastline includes a ship.

Ours is one of several state flags that takes the easy route of putting the state seal on a plain background. This approach is scorned by vexillologists as being dull and confusing, which helps explain why there are frequent suggestions that we change the state flag to something bolder and simpler, often incorporating the Old Man on the Mountain’s famous profile.

The most recent suggestion to change the state flag came May 1 from seventh-grader Andrew Flockton of Milford, the winner of this year’s “Governor for a Day” competition. His design also included the Old Man as well as the “Live Free or Die” slogan, which is also enshrined in state law.

 Any change would have to be approved by the Legislature. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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