Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kansas: To the Stars Through Difficulty

"Ad astra per astera" is the motto of the 34th state to join the Union, Kansas. It joined the Union on January 29, 1861.

Icarus by Henri Matisse, c. 1947

Translated from the Latin, "ad astra per astera" literally means, "to the stars through difficulty." More colloquially, it translates into the familiar adage, "nothing worth doing is ever accomplished without effort."  Though heady stuff in the Latin, making one look upward to consider dreams and goals, it ultimately is practical advice – mid-western advice.

The state flag of Kansas: Ad astra per astera
The motto is placed at the heart of the Kansas state flag just the way Kansas is settled at the heart of the country. It is found at the top of the Kansas state seal (c. 1911), a circular picture enclosing a star-studded blue sky, a golden horizon, and rolling hills of farmland with a farmer and a team of horses plowing in the foreground. The seal is central upon a blue field. Below it, in bold, golden yellow, is "Kansas", a detail added in 1961.

Above the seal is the Kansas state crest, a pretty but odd, little device created by the US War Department in 1923. The crest consists of two parts: a very pretty sunflower above a baton with yellow and blue stripes. The baton looks a lot like the bars of a military medal and is supposed to symbolize the Louisiana Purchase (1803) from which much of Kansas is carved (  

The official State Banner of Kansas, c. 1925-1927
Kansas did not have a state flag until 1927. For two years, from 1925-1927, Kansas had an official state banner in lieu of a state flag. It is the only state to do so, a situation owing to the continuing debate of the flag's design.

The discussion begins in 1915 with a request for a state flag by former newspaperman, then governor, and eventual five-term US Senator, Arthur Capper. The desire for state flags must have been part of a national discussion at the time for in 1916, the Daughters of the American Revolution hold a flag contest for a Kansas state flag. The Kansas DAR contest is just one of many hosted across the country that will be responsible for a plethora of state flags – but not this one.

Esther Estelle Northrup of Lawrence, Kansas wins the contest. The Northrup design includes three wide, horizontal stripes. From top to bottom, they are in red, white and blue. On the bottom stripe, the blue stripe, there is no additional ornament. On the central, white stripe, is the state seal. On the red stripe, at the top, is the state flower, the sunflower. [Unfortunately, an image of the Northrup design is not available.]

Arthur Capper, journalist, governor, US senator
According to state histories, the state flower, in itself, was a topic of debate as some liked the ubiquitous Kansas sunflower and others considered it a "noxious" weed ( Despite the debate on the merits of the sunflower, at the time of the 1916 DAR contest, the sunflower had been the official state flower of Kansas for five years. At the end of the debate, however, the Northrup flag was considered to be too similar to the Stars and Stripes for the state's officials' tastes, so the search continued.

By 1925, a Civil War veterans group of Union soldiers, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), steps in and successfully lobbies for an official state banner. This design depicts a blue field with a large, golden sunflower in the middle. "Kansas" is below the sunflower. Gold fringe decorates the bottom. To make it clear that this is a banner and not a flag, the banner is required to be hung between two poles or to be carried in a similar manner, a requirement that makes carrying the banner twice as difficult as carrying a flag. The National Guard is not happy about this. Separate from that complaint is the obvious irritation of the DAR with the GAR. And so it went.

Albert Reid riffs on JP Morgan and monopolies

The image on the banner, however, is a pretty one. The Kansas State Historical Society's description makes it sound as if the image is the same one submitted by the rather famous Kansas illustrator Albert Reid. Reid, who aspired to being a painter, is best known for his wry political cartoons and those depicting social commentary. Other sources credit the banner's design to Adjutant General Joe Nickell.

In either event, this state of affairs lasted for two years before a state flag was finally chosen. Adjutant General Milton R. McLean managed to successfully sponsor the Kansas Flag Act. It was passed on March 21, 1927 and describes the flag as a blue field with the state seal in the center and the state crest centered above that. With the single exception of the 1961 modification, it remains unchanged.

Ad astra per astera is both the Kansas state motto as well as the story behind her flag.
Sunflowers by Yovko Lambrev

Let it fly!

A wonderfully detailed and illustrated timeline of Kansas history can be found at Kansas History Online.


Kansas History Online (

Kansas State Historical Society

State Library of Kansas (


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