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The two-sided flag

After reading “Oregon seals and flags” in this column (Nov. 1), a bunch of readers were surprised to learn that Oregon never had an official state flag until 1925.

It prompted readers Mike and Bob to ask an interesting question: “Oregon is the only state with a two-sided flag? How did that happen?”

Well, nothing puts a history snoop down the rabbit hole faster than that quick answer he or she doesn’t know.

First, let’s back up a bit, as sightings of the Oregon flag still are a bit rare, and some of you may not even know what we’re talking about.

Oregon’s flag is the only state flag that has a different design on the front and the back; although in the past, other state, city and national flags were similar.

Alabama briefly adopted a two-sided flag (1861-1865). Others include Minnesota (1893-1957), West Virginia (1905-1929) and Massachusetts (1908-1971).

You may remember from the previous column that in 1925, Lexington, Massachusetts, was celebrating the anniversary of the Revolutionary War battle fought there and asked Oregon government officials to send a flag. The problem? Oregon didn’t have one.

There was no time for a design competition, so legislators took the easy way out — place the state seal and accompanying text in gold on a field of navy blue cloth. Then, get someone to sew a flag together as soon as possible. The beaver on the back of the flag was a late amendment to the original legislation.

Understanding why the beaver wouldn’t fit on the front of the flag requires a brief dive into the history of the state seal.

In the mid 1800s, the most important symbol for a government wasn’t a flag, but rather an official seal. It ensured government documents or functions were sanctioned under government authority.

Before Oregon became a United States territory in 1848, the provisional government adopted a simple seal depicting three bundles of wheat and a salmon; headed by the word “Oregon.”

The subsequent territorial seal carried a shield enclosing mountains covered with a forest, a plow representing agriculture, and a sailing ship denoting commerce. Above the ship was a beaver denoting fur trade. At the left side of the shield was an American Indian. Opposite, on the right, was an eagle. A banner above the beaver scrolled in an arc from the shoulder of the Indian to the beak of the eagle and bore the Latin territorial motto, “Alis Volat Proprilis,” translated as, “She flies with her own wings” — implying self-reliance. “Seal of the Territory of Oregon” and five stars were the circular legend around the edge of the seal.

During the 1857 Constitutional Convention, when Oregon residents anticipated becoming a state, surveyor Harvey Gordon designed a seal. With a few additions from the delegates it became the Oregon State Seal when statehood began Valentine’s Day 1859.

Initially, that seal displayed an eagle standing on a shield that enclosed a departing British sailing ship, an American ship arriving, a sunset, mountains, forests, an elk, a pick ax, a plow, a rake, a bundle of wheat, a covered wagon and the state motto of the time, “The Union.” The shield was surrounded by 33 stars (Oregon was the 33rd state), and the circular text, read “Seal of the State of Oregon 1859.”

By the turn of the century, the seal was modified. The sunset removed, the eagle repositioned, and the text changed to “State of Oregon,” with no date. The departing British ship was moved into full view within the shield.

This was the version redrawn and used to prepare the 1925 flag. The only changes were the text placement of “State of Oregon” above the shield and “1859” below. Unable to fit the beaver within the shield, it was placed on the back of the flag.

The contract to produce the flag was given to the Meier and Frank department store in Portland. Blanche Cox and Marjorie Kennedy, store employees, sometimes given credit for designing the flag, actually cut and sewed the pieces of the flag together in just five days.

It wasn’t until 1965 that secretary of state and future governor Tom McCall asked that the sunset be returned to the seal and the flag — the flag we see today, if you can find it.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.