Most American cities have their own flag, but few are as famous or well-known as Chicago’s, which has flown proudly over the city for over a century.
Chicago’s original flag was designed in a competition sponsored by the city council in 1917. The winning design was submitted by Wallace Rice, author and lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The original flag had the beginning of its iconic design with two blue bars and two six-pointed red stars.
A third star was added in 1933 and the fourth star was added in 1939.
Each part of the flag has a symbolic meaning, according to the city’s municipal code 1-8-030 and a fact sheet produced by the Chicago Library detailing the evolution and meaning of the banner.
Here is a breakdown of each symbolic meaning of the Chicago flag.
Three white sections
While the eye’s attention is inevitably drawn to the flag’s blue stripes and red stars, the three distinct white areas also have significance, according to the Chicago Library.
The three white sections are designed to symbolize the north, west, and south sides of Chicago.
The blue stripes
The sky blue stripes on the flag give the banner its first splash of color and have been used in a wide variety of contexts to help symbolize the city, including on sports uniforms.
The upper band was designed to symbolize both Lake Michigan, which borders the city on its eastern side, and the North Branch of the Chicago River. The North Fork of the river is formed by the convergence of three bodies of water and enters Chicago near the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Devon Avenue.
The lower band was designed to symbolize the South Branch of the river, which is formed by the North Branch and Main Stem of the river, which originates from Lake Michigan since the flow of water was reversed away from the lake.
It also depicts the “Grand Canal,” a 28-mile-long network of canals that connects the river to the Des Plaines River. The canal is also the only water-based connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system.
Each of the four stars on the flag of Chicago represents a different historical event, codified in the city’s municipal code, and each of the six points of those stars also has an unofficial symbolic meaning, according to the Chicago Library.
Rice deliberately included six dots on each of the stars because a five-pointed star is meant to represent sovereign states, as they do on the flag of the United States.
First Star – Great Chicago Fire
An original star on the flag that was unveiled in 1917, the star represents the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred in 1871. The fire killed approximately 300 people and destroyed approximately three square miles of the city and more than 17,000 buildings.
Other countries and the US government stepped in to help rebuild the city, including a donation from the UK that helped fund Chicago’s library system in the wake of the fire.
The six points of this star represent transportation, labor, commerce, finance, population, and the health of the city following the tragic fire.
Second Star – World’s Columbian Expositionn of 1893
Also on the original flag, the second star represents the World’s Fair, which took place in Chicago in 1893 and highlighted the remarkable turnaround after fire destroyed much of the city barely two decades earlier.
The remarkable fair, which covered nearly 700 acres and took place in areas around Jackson Park, was hailed as a huge success and gave the city some of its most iconic structures, including the Science Museum and Of the industry.
The six points of this star represent some of the axes of this fair, including religion, education, aesthetics, justice, benevolence and civic spirit.
Third Star – Century of Progress Exhibition
Also known as the “World’s Fair”, the Century of Progress Exposition was held between 1933 and 1934, with the third star being added to the Chicago flag during this time.
The event celebrated Chicago’s centennial and the theme was technological innovation. It took place along Lake Michigan and the North Island.
The points of this star represent a variety of achievements and characteristics of the city, including its status as the second largest city in America at the time of the fair, as well as the city’s motto Urbs in hortowhich translates to “City in a Garden” in Latin.
“I Will” is an alternate city motto, and is also represented by a dot on this star. The other three dots on the star represent different fairground attractions, including the Great Central Marketplace, Wonder City and Convention City.
Fourth Star – The Founding of Fort Dearborn
The last star on the Chicago flag was added in 1939 and represents the founding of Fort Dearborn.
The fort was built next to the Chicago River and is named after Secretary of War Henry Dearborn. The original fort was destroyed during the War of 1812, but was rebuilt on the same site before being decommissioned in 1837.
The widening of the Chicago River washed away some of the remains of the fort, and the rest was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Today, visitors can find planks of the fort at the Chicago History Museum, and plaques describe part of the fort near the intersection of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue.
The six points of this star represent the various countries and US government entities that have had control of Chicago throughout history, including France and England. Illinois was originally part of Virginia until 1778 when it was designated as part of the “Northwest Territory”.
According to the Chicago Library, Chicago was part of Indiana Territory until 1802, then was designated as part of Illinois, which became a U.S. state in 1818.
Fifth Star Proposals
A number of proposals have been floated over the years to add a fifth star to the flag, whether to honor the late Mayor Harold Washington, the Great Chicago Flood of 1992, or the dominance of the Chicago Bulls.
The latest proposal was made by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to commemorate the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.