The City Flag of Austin

Deputy City Clerk Elden Aldridge standing with original Austin Municipal Flag, July 1975. Photography by Mike Fluitt. Image # PICA 11952, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library. 

The City Flag of Austin

Blog post by Rusty
Thursday, November 16, 2017

By Mike Miller

Did you know Austin has an official Municipal Flag? Don’t worry, most folks don’t know either. It was in the news a couple of years ago, thanks to a TED talk about flag design by Roman Mars that went viral ( Mars called out Austin, as well as other cities, for poor flag design, leading a few local designers to suggest some new designs. News outlets like KUT, KXAN, and the Austin American-Statesman ran stories about the flag, including an interview with yours truly for the KXAN story about the history of the flag - The flag turned 100 years old a couple months ago, but how did we get it in the first place?

"Competition for a Municipal Flag," 1915. This is the cover page for the original set of rules and guidelines for the entrants to follow. 

In 1915, Ellen Wyse, editor of Gossip, suggested to Mayor A. P. Wooldridge that the city needed a municipal flag. The mayor created a design competition, offering $50 for the best entry (and $25 for second place) and formed a citizens committee to review entrants. 130 entrants submitted designs by the October 2, 1916, deadline According to the instructions in Competition for a Municipal Flag, the design should factor in the “natural beauty of Austin, the City of the Violet Crown, the lake and dam, the Capital of the State, the dome of the Capitol, the seal of the city, an educational center, its industries, the sentiment of its past history, the derivation of the name – from Stephen F. Austin, an expression of the ideals of Stephen F. Austin in symbolic form, the use of the coat of arms of Stephen F. Austin.”

Some guidelines and instructions for potential entrants for the flag design contest, as published in the pamphlet Competition for a Municpal Flag, 1915. 

The committee awarded the top prize to Ray F. Coyle of San Francisco, CA. G. A. Geist of Texas A & M University won second prize. With a few modifications by the design committee, Coyle’s entry became the official flag and seal for the city. Coyle’s design consisted of a shield in red, white and blue, with an outline of the Capitol building as the top of the shield. Elements from the Austin family coat of arms (the triangle) and the Stephen F. Austin coat of arms (the crest of wings and cross) were included. The design committee added the “lamp of knowledge” in the center of the triangle to represent Austin as an education center, and it is colored orange to signify the University of Texas. This element replaced a white star and crown that Coyle included to represent the City of the Violet Crown. The design committee also added the words “City of Austin” in block letters below the shield. The city began using this new design as a flag and city seal in 1917, and the City Council officially adopted it on April 12, 1919.

The original winning design, with the "City of Austin" at the bottom of the seal. 

While the design (with some modifications over the years) became emblazoned on just about every city document, police car, and other city property, the flag itself fell into disuse. Scarbrough’s Department Store received the first shipment of flags in 1917, presenting one copy to the city and selling large and small versions to the public. Within a couple days, the flag presented to the City turned up missing, according to a July 20, 1917 Austin Statesman story (but was found). The 1919 resolution adopting the flag stated that the “flag shall be carefully kept at City Hall and exhibited on all proper civic occasions, as may be determined upon by the then Mayor of the city of the judgment of the City Council as it may exist at the time when such municipal flag may be brought into use and requisition.”

In 1944, Jane McCallum wrote about the flag in her weekly column in the Statesman, lamenting that the flag was not flown and even questioned who knew the city had its own flag. At some point in its history, the flag was folded and placed in a brown paper sack, ending up in a desk drawer in the City Clerk’s office. In 1975, an employee there discovered it and the Clerk’s office had it framed. It was on display in the Old Bakery when it served as the headquarters for the Bicentennial, then turned over to the archives along with all the materials and records of the Office of Bicentennial Affairs.

The flag resides at the AHC, usually on display in the Mayor’s Room (though not currently for preservation reasons). And whether you agree with Mars or not or think the city needs a new flag or not, the original is an important symbol of our city’s past. And if the city does get a new flag, the AHC will take that, too.