Philadelphia vexillophile Simon Joseph at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier in Washington Square, which flies flags associated with all original 13 states. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)

If your family member is exhibiting signs of vexillophilia, should you be alarmed?

For the more than 120 flag experts and enthusiasts descending on Philadelphia next month, the answer is most definitely not — even if they recognize it might not be for everyone.

“It’s a weird hobby,” said Simon Joseph, a Norris Square resident helping organize the North American Vexillological Association’s 57th Annual Meeting at the 23rd Street Armory in Center City. “I think it’s weird, and I’m totally into it. I like that it is design, I like that it’s history, I like that it is physical.”

Vexillology is the study of flags, including their history, how they’re used, and how they’re made. Joseph described it as an “obscure subject.”

However, he noted the 13-year-old r/vexillology subreddit — “For all you flag lovers out there!” — has over 600,000 members, and has helped popularize flag study and design among a new, younger group of aficionados.

The NAVA meeting on Oct. 6-8 will be the third time Philly is hosting the event, per Joseph. Attendees from around the country will hear presentations from vexillologists and get a chance to see historical flags on display around the city. 

With all its history, Philadelphia presents “a wealth of vexillological riches,” the meeting website notes.

‘Flags Happen’ — and there’s controversy around them, too

Philly’s unique attractions for flag connoisseurs include rarities like the original Markoe Standard, the distinctive yellow flag of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry.

That’s the 249-year-old National Guard unit still operating out of the huge, fort-like armory between 23rd and 24th near Chestnut Street, where the meeting will take place. The Markoe Standard there is believed to be among the first flags representing the original colonies with 13 alternating stripes, which were added to cover a British Union Jack.

Some meeting participants will visit the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with its flags of more than 100 countries. There’s also Macy’s Wanamaker Organ Hall of Flags, and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier in Washington Square, which boasts flags associated with all original 13 states and the original American flag.

“There’s some controversy about the flags that are up there, because not all of them are historically what would have been flown during the Revolution,” Joseph said. “I suspect one of the talks or the tour is going to talk about why those were chosen and what’s special about them.”

Presentations during the meeting will cover a gamut of flag-related topics, with titles like “More Than a Flag: Utah’s Adoption of the People’s Flag”; “State’s Rights and State Flags: How Constitutional Change Influences State Flags”; and “Birds in Vexillology: Welcome to the Aviary.”

Other scheduled talks include “Flags Happen: A Critical Discussion on Flags and Design” and “Capture the Flag: The Grim Reality Behind a Child’s Game.”

More than 100 flags from nations around the world line the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

A few of the presentations focus on city flags, a broad subject that could encompass the on-and-off debate over whether Philadelphia should adopt a new one. 

Critics have called Philly’s 128-year-old banner — which may have been the nation’s first city flag — uninspired or irrelevant and have proposed a variety of new designs.

The enduring aura around Betsy Ross

The most famous Philadelphia flag story, of course, is the anecdote about Betsy Ross making the first American flag when she lived on Arch Street in 1776. 

Experts long ago discounted the tale as unsubstantiated. But Joseph, who works at the American Philosophical Society in Old City, said Ross’s long flag-making career may still be of interest to some of the meeting attendees, including younger initiates into vexillology.

For example, while there’s no documentary evidence she made the first flag, a surviving receipt from 1777 proves she did make other flags. She’s also been credited with coming up with the now-familiar star shape as an alternative to a planned six-pointed star, although this claim has also been disputed.

“What is the truth, and what is fiction? And what is correct about the receipt that was given to Betsy Ross to make the flags? And did she actually make the pattern? Or did she make a pattern for a five point star, or what exactly happened there? That’s all interesting,” Joseph said.

The United States flag at the Philadelphia Tall Ships festival in 2015. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Brand-new flags will also be flown as part of the meeting, including a specially designed flag that the organizers adopted to commemorate the event. It features the Liberty Bell and 13 red and white stripes in a “V,” for vexillology. 

Design competitions are a big part of vexillology and part of what makes it fun for some people, Joseph said, while others are fascinated by the significance of the subtle physical details of flags.

“Some people are interested because there’s a lot of procedure, where it’s like, let me make sure I have the right grommets in the right spot, the right knots in the right spot, the correct thing on the top of the flagpole, the correct dimensions to everything,” he said.

He traces his own interest in flags back to a theology class he took as a student at the University of Notre Dame. The professor explained the three flags of the patron saints of England, Scotland, and Ireland: St. George’s red cross on white, St. Andrew’s white X on blue, and St. Patrick’s red X on white.

“You combine those three flags and you get the U.K. flag,” Joseph said. “That’s really cool.”

Updated with the correct age of r/vexillology.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...