With all of the excitement surrounding Minnesota’s sesquicentennial this year, I’ve been thinking about those formative days in 1858 when we emerged from our territorial adolescence into full-grown statehood. Creating a new state is no simple matter. Given the innumerable legislative tasks involved, we shouldn’t be surprised that one or two slipped through the cracks. What might be surprising though, is that Minnesota’s oversights included the failure to adopt an official state flag – for 35 years!
It was not until plans were made for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 that the lack of a flag became a real problem. As a part of that grand fair, marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas (the fair itself was a bit behind schedule), each of the then 44 states were invited to mount an exhibit at the fairgrounds in Chicago. As the Minnesota display was prepared, the state legislature determined that the occasion called for an official state flag.
The legislature appointed a flag commission and the commission in turn sponsored a design contest open to all Minnesotans. Amelia Hyde Center of Minneapolis submitted the winning entry. Center’s design called for a double-sided flag blue on one face, and white on the other. The Minnesota state seal (which the state had remembered to adopt in 1861) was the focal point. Center placed three dates in the seal: 1819 (the founding of Fort Snelling), 1858 (statehood), and 1893 (the flag’s design). Sisters Pauline and Thomane Fjelde, immigrants to Minnesota from Norway and respected needleworkers, were contracted to produce the actual prototype flag. The Fjelde sisters did such a fine job of it that the Minnesota flag earned a gold medal for embroidery at the Chicago exposition.
Center’s design survives largely intact in our current state flag. The double-sided scheme was dropped in favor of two blue sides in 1957, not for aesthetic reasons, but because a single-colored flag was easier to mass-produce. The Fjeldes’ original silk flag became the property of the Minnesota National Guard. It made public appearances in parades as late as 1919, and then went into storage. The flag underwent conservation treatments in the 1930s, and again in the 1980s, before the Guard transferred it to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1993. Some things are indeed worth the wait.
Matt Anderson, Objects Curator