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Milwaukee Journal held a design contest for a new city flag – in 1897
By Chris Foran of the Journal Sentinel
Last weekend, organizers of the "People's Flag of Milwaukee" contest unveiled the five finalist designs for a new city flag.
The finalists – on display at City Hall, along with the other 45 top entries and 15 honorable mentions – can be rated online at milwaukeeflag.com, with the winner to be announced on Flag Day, June 14.
The winner will be pitched to replace the city's official flag, which dates back to 1954, but it's the Common Council's decision.
No offense to the organizers of the "People's Flag" contest, but the old Milwaukee Journal already selected a winning design — nearly 119 years ago.
On Oct. 30, 1897, the Journal announced it was offering cash prizes for the best designs for a new civic flag for Milwaukee.
"The design of such a flag should be emblematic of the city's greatness and of all the features that make it unique among America's most important municipalities," the Journal wrote. "A suggestion of the history of the city, and its resources of art and commerce would also be in order. A civic flag should be dignified and so beautiful in design and harmony of color that it would at once attract the attention and admiration of every beholder."
The Journal offered a cash prize of $15 for the best civic flag design, and $10 for the second-best; deadline for entries was Dec. 1, 1897.
The judges for the contest were three high-profile Milwaukeeans: Mayor William G. Rauschenberger; John Johnston, a prominent banker; and Lydia Ely, a painter credited by some as the organizer of Wisconsin's first art exhibit and the driving force behind the funding and installation of Milwaukee's Civil War monument, "The Victorious Charge," on what is now Wisconsin Ave. across from Milwaukee Public Library's Central Library.
Apparently, the judges initially didn't get what they were looking for: On Dec. 7, 1897, the Journal said the flag design competition would remain open until Jan. 7.
"About 50 designs have been submitted, and the judges appointed for the purpose have carefully examined them. Some of the designs were not accompanied by suitable mottoes, as required, and other competitors made the mistake of thinking that a carnival flag, instead of a city flag, was required," the Journal wrote.
On Jan. 10, 1898, the Journal announced it had a winner. Out of about 150 designs submitted, the judges picked John Amberg's design, which had as its focal point a banner reading "Steady Progress."
John Amberg’s design won first place in The Milwaukee Journal's competition for a new civic flag for Milwaukee. This black-and-white rendering was published in the Jan. 10, 1898, Milwaukee Journal.
"The most striking quality of the Cream City as portrayed by Mr. Amberg is its Steady Progress," the Journal wrote. "He represents this trait by a small branch of an oak tree with a few clustering acorns on it, an emblem of slow but steady and sturdy growth from small beginnings.
"The word 'Milwaukee' appears below the figure and motto, and the whole is placed upon a cream background, with a border of blue."
"The design is simple," Rauschenberger said in the Journal story, "but it is artistic and eminently fitting. The very fact that it is simple will be a factor in having it copied largely and used very generally as a municipal decoration....It is a good plan, and the Journal has shown considerable enterprise as well as rare judgment in proposing and arranging the competition."
The judges' choice for runner-up — and the $10 second-place prize — went to a design by Fred W. Dickens, with the word "Milwaukee" running diagonally in black letters on a red ribbon. The background was cream-colored on the top half, light blue on the bottom.
The runner-up selection in The Journal’s design competition for a civic flag for Milwaukee was by Fred W. Dickens. It boasted the word “Milwaukee” running diagonally in black letters on a red ribbon.
In a story in the Journal on Jan. 11, 1898, Ely explained why some of the submissions didn't pass muster. One design, which represented the city's three rivers forming a "perfect cross," was thought "altogether too ecclesiastical in appearance." A "very elegant" design incorporating a fleur-de-lis — likely a shout-out to city father Solomon Juneau — was rejected as "too 'Frenchy.'"
Still others used hop vines in the design, but Ely said "it was not desired to emphasize this industry above others."
In the end, it didn't matter. There is no record of either winning design being adopted for a flag for the city of Milwaukee.
In a story on Milwaukee's history with official flags, Chance Michaels of BorchertField.com — a terrific "online museum" of the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers that is also a first-rate tracker of Milwaukee history and popular culture — noted that momentum for the Journal-sponsored flag design might have lost steam three months later when Rauschenberger, a Republican, wasn't nominated for re-election and Democrat David S. Rose won the race for mayor.
Michaels, who first reported on the Journal's 1897 design contest in January, also traced the numerous attempts to come up with a city flag — even after the city finally adopted one of its own in 1954.
Agreeing with the need for a new city flag, Michaels even submitted five of his own designs in the new "People's Flag of Milwaukee" contest. Unfortunately, none of his designs made the final cut.
Monday, May 23, 2016
Green Sheet: "Milwaukee Journal held a design contest for a new city flag — in 1897"
Following the unveiling of the five "People's Flag of Milwaukee" finalists, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has this piece on the earliest Milwaukee flag competition, one we talked about back in January. And in fairness, they do give credit where due.