Dr. Whitney Smith, Jr., was the preeminent scholar on all aspects of the history, symbolism, and significance of flags.
Born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on 26 February 1940, he became interested in flags at the age of five and received constant encouragement from his parents, Whitney Sr. and Mildred G. Smith. He began by collecting newspaper articles and flag-related publications as well as actual flags. At the age of 11, he started his formal research work by writing to the Greenland government to find out why such a large island was (according to the flag books) without a flag of its own. His collection of over a quarter-million documents and tens of thousands of books, pamphlets, engravings, electronic files, and flag-related artifacts was the largest in the world. The Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection is now housed at The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.
As an adult Smith created many of the institutions that allowed for the growth of a worldwide community of flag scholars. He popularized the term universally used for the scholarly study of flags; “vexillology” was formed by combining the Latin word for flag (vexillum) and the Greek ending indicating “the study of.” [His Vexillologist’s Credo set out his vision of vexillology.] At 21, Smith and colleague Gerhard Grahl began in 1961 to publish The Flag Bulletin, the world’s first periodical on flags. Smith edited The Flag Bulletin for 50 years and authored 27 books on various aspects of the subject.
In 1965, Smith and a Dutch colleague convened the First International Congress of Vexillology in Muiderberg, The Netherlands. Smith then helped found the International Federation of Vexillological Associations which continues to sponsor biennial congresses and to facilitate relations among vexillologists around the world. From 1965 until 1991, he served as Secretary-General on the governing board of the Federation.
The North American Vexillological Association-Association nord-américaine de vexillologie, encompassing flag scholars of the United States and Canada, was created in 1967 by Smith, who served as its president through 1977. He was also responsible for founding the Flag Heritage Foundation in 1971 and assisted in the initiation of flag study societies in several other countries.
His promotion of vexillology included interviews for radio, television, and many newspapers and magazines. The latter included The Smithsonian Magazine, Time, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Times (London), The New Yorker, Américas, USA Today, People Magazine, and others.
After graduation from Harvard College magna cum laude in 1961, Smith was awarded a National Defense Education Act fellowship under which he obtained his master’s degree and doctorate in political science from Boston University. He was an instructor and assistant professor at the same institution from 1964 through 1970. Subsequently he worked full-time until his death as director of the Flag Research Center based in Winchester, Massachusetts, which he founded. As such he served as a consultant on all aspects of flags for many government agencies, non-profits, and businesses. In particular he professionalized flag information for many encyclopedia companies, other publishers, and flag manufacturers.
Smith delivered numerous lectures, wrote several hundred articles for publication, and did appraisals of historic flags. Research assignments took him to nearly every American state and to over 50 countries. In the course of his professional work Smith developed standard vocabulary and design definition norms for flags now used worldwide, including “vexillography” (flag designing) and “civil ensign” (the flag flown by privately-owned vessels).
Smith’s 1975 book Flags Through the Ages and Across the World is considered the best general work on flags ever published. He also authored The Flag Book of the United States, The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict (with Howard M. Madaus), Guide to the Flags of the World, The Bibliography of Flags of Foreign Nations, World Book’s Encyclopedia of Flags, Flag Lore of All Nations, Flags and Arms Across the World, Current National Flags, and Broad Stripes and Bright Stripes. Over 300,000 copies of his works have been sold.
Articles by Smith appeared in various encyclopedias including “Symbols of Nationalism” (The Encyclopedia of Nationalism). Smith also designed a number of flags including — at the age of 20 — the national flag of Guyana. He received a number of awards including election as both a Laureate and Fellow of the Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques; election as a Whitney Smith Fellow of the North American Vexillological Association-Association nord-américaine de vexillologie; recipient of Ottfried Neubecker Cultural Merit Medal; and the George Washington Award for Excellence of the National Independent Flag Dealers’ Association.
Before the influence of his work became felt, flags were generally considered by the academic world and others as simply a colorful hobby — “The floral border to the garden of history,” as one writer put it. When asked why they should be taken more seriously, Smith’s standard reply was “People kill for flags. People die for flags. It is incumbent on us to try to understand how a piece of cloth can incarnate that power.”