Briscoe Center Acquires World-Class Flag History Collection
Vast archive preserves life work of Whitney Smith
October 15, 2013
The Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin has acquired the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection. This vast and unique archive documents the development of the academic discipline that seeks to understand the symbolism and significance of flags and heraldry.
“I’m delighted and proud that the center will be the home of the Whitney Smith Collection, the most important and complete archive of its kind,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. “This acquisition creates a new collection strength for the center. Historically, flags have transmitted significant symbolic information that can tell us much about the origins, culture, self image, and values of a society.”
The collection includes the contents of the Flag Research Center, created in 1962 and directed by Whitney Smith, widely recognized as the foremost expert on the study of flags and their historical significance, known as vexillology. The center was home to thousands of books, charts, pamphlets, serials, clippings, and flags, as well as troves of associated memorabilia. The Smith Collection contains considerable research materials related to American history and Americana, with detailed information about the development of the Stars and Stripes as well as state flags. Migrating the collection took a crew of twelve people four days to pack into two 53-foot trailers.
“By entrusting this collection to the university, Dr. Smith has ensured that his collection remains a vibrant resource for scholars across the country and around the world,” said Hugh Brady, president of the North American Vexillological Association and director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at the University’s School of Law. “Flags matter. People fly them, fight for them, burn them, and fuss over them.”
The Smith Collection compliments numerous resources at the Briscoe Center, including captured battle flags found in its material culture holdings; significant photographs of flags in its photojournalism holdings; documents related to the original design of the Texas flag in the Moses and Stephen F. Austin papers; and film resources featuring flags and heraldry.
“Like words, flags are representations of ideas,” said Charles Spain, secretary general of the International Federation of Vexillological Associations. “The ever shrewd Napoleon recognized their power: ‘It is with these things that men are led.'”
Whitney Smith founded the North American Vexillological Association and the International Federation of Vexillological Associations. He has written 27 books about flags, authored hundreds of articles, has been a flag consultant for hundreds of companies, and has authored over 250 Britannica encyclopedia entries concerning individual flag histories. Smith even designed the national flag of Guyana in 1966.
“Not many people can rightfully claim to have founded a field of study, and shepherded it through to maturity as a community of scholars, publications and enthusiasts,” said Carleton. “Smith’s life work will not only be persevered, it will be open for academic research and act as a magnet for similar collections.”
A one-year project to process and catalog the Smith Collection will begin shortly, after which the materials will be available for research.