Flag expert David Martucci displays an original 1901 Maine state flag he purchased online 22 years ago. Martucci says the flag was made in 1908 to be displayed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle in 1909.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows sounds unflappable as she anticipates her role in one of the more complex political controversies to divide the Maine State House in decades.

In the months ahead, Bellows must come up with a representation of the original 1901 Maine state flag to put before voters in November 2024. If approved, the pine tree and North Star on a buff background will replace the state seal on a blue background that has been the official state flag since 1909.

But there is disagreement over different modern interpretations of the 1901 flag, and plenty of people still like the current state flag, with some seeing the proposed change as part of a “woke” political agenda. And companies making different versions of the 1901 flag have no idea how their future sales will be affected by the design Bellows chooses.

Bellows says she’s up for the task, though she never imagined this would be among her duties when she became secretary of state in 2021. The Legislature gave her the responsibility in July when it passed a bill calling for the referendum.

“We know the 1901 flag is popular,” Bellows said. “People have been displaying a variety of versions on everything from hats to beer bottles. There’s a lot of passion about the pine tree in Maine. We’re the Pine Tree State. We can do this.”

The question before voters will be simple: “Do you favor making the former state flag, replaced as the official flag of the state in 1909 and commonly known as the Pine Tree Flag, the official flag of the state?” Bellows’ chosen depiction of the flag won’t appear on the ballot, but it will be included in a referendum voting guide and may be displayed in voting areas, she said.


Besides basic dimensional details, the legislation that created the original 1901 state flag called for a five-pointed blue star in the upper left corner and “a pine tree proper” in the center. In the process of developing a design for voters to consider, Bellows and the advisory group she plans to convene will become vexillologists – experts in the study of flags. Just saying the word may put off some potential members.

They will have to consider several competing versions of the 1901 flag that are in production and now adorn front porches, ball caps, sweatshirts, and coasters across Maine and beyond. And they will have to unfurl the confusion and politically charged controversy that has risen up around the question of which flag best represents Maine’s past, present, and future.

There are two basic versions of the 1901 flag: one with a stylized pine tree modeled after Maine’s official maritime flag issued in 1939, and one featuring a more natural depiction of a pine tree with roots, like the original 1901 design. But which one might become the official state flag?

A cap adorned with one version of the pine tree depicted on the original 1901 Maine state flag is made by Maine Stitching Specialties. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Lori Coleman of Sanford and Amy Samson of Waterboro likely represent a wide swath of Mainers who don’t know much about either state flag.

The sisters were shopping recently in the Rangeley store where Maine Stitching Specialties sells its 1901 flags. Family members have purchased 1901 flags and other items with both the stylized pine tree and the more natural design, they said. But how they might vote in November 2024 is unclear.

“I like the simplicity of the 1901 flag, but I don’t think I have enough information to make a decision,” Coleman said.


“There’s also something appealing about the existing state flag,” Samson said, “so to go back on that, are we erasing something?”


David Martucci, one of the foremost vexillologists in the country, hopes to help answer some of those concerns when Bellows forms her advisory group early next year. He’s been trying to restore the 1901 state flag for more than 30 years, including legislative proposals in 1991 and 1996 that never made it out of committee.

Martucci, who lives in the Knox County town of Washington, owns one of only five original 1901 flags known to exist. Neither the Maine State Archives nor the Maine Historical Society has an original example of the 1901 flag, although the society has an ink-on-paper lithograph of the flag as authorized by the Legislature in 1901.

Martucci acquired his 1901 flag online 22 years ago from a California man, who found three 1901 flags neatly folded in an old roll-top desk he had purchased.

Martucci paid $50 for his flag. Another of the flags was sold to a Maryland resident, and the third remains in California, he said. A fourth 1901 flag is in Massachusetts, and another is outside New England, he said.


Screen-printed on delicate silk, Martucci’s flag was manufactured in 1908 and measures 12 by 17 inches. It includes three maroon ribbons along one side that probably were tied to a hand-held stick. Like the lithograph, it shows a realistic-looking pine tree in different shades of green, with a dark brown trunk, two cut-off branches, and three curled roots at the base.

The original 1901 Maine state flag, of which only five are known to exist. This one, owned by David Martucci, a flag expert, is the only one known to be in Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

But while Martucci relishes the artistry and detail in the original 1901 design, he appreciates the simplicity and popularity of modern interpretations, including versions that feature what he calls a “cartoon” pine tree.

“When considering what makes a good flag, simplicity is generally accepted as being better. At the top of a 50-foot flag pole, flapping in the breeze, the simpler, the better,” said Martucci, 70, who recently retired after 20 years as Thomaston’s tax assessor.

What matters to Martucci is that many people have embraced the 1901 flag in recent years and they enjoy displaying it, whichever version they choose.

“Flying the flag should be common and popular,” he said. “Very few people display the current state flag outside official uses.”



The 1901 flag was proposed and designed by Adjutant Gen. John Richards, a Civil War veteran who oversaw the soldiers home in Togus from 1905-1915, said Martucci, a New Jersey native who began studying flags in the 1960s.

Now an expert on Maine’s state flags, Martucci said trees have been important symbols of life, prosperity, and strength for millennia, including among Maine’s Indigenous tribes. The Legislature designated the pine cone and tassel as the state flower in 1895 and the Eastern white pine as the state tree in 1945.

On the 1901 flag, the pine tree represents the social, economic, and political unity of the state, with three roots symbolizing the three branches of government that support the people of Maine, he said.

Two branches that have been cut from the lower trunk “likely refer to the two major territories that were once a part of Maine: New Hampshire, separated from Maine in 1629; and Northern Madawaska, yielded to Canada as a result of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842,” Martucci wrote in his history of the flag.

The North Star represents Maine’s position as the northernmost among the contiguous states in 1820 and its guiding light to mariners as described in legislation that year establishing the state seal, which also includes the “Polar Star.”

The 1901 flag was displayed that year at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and on badges worn during Old Home Week in Rockland, Martucci said. The pine tree and star also appeared on brass buttons on uniforms worn by workers on the Maine Central Railroad, known as the Pine Tree Route.


Martucci’s 1901 flag likely flew at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in 1909 in Seattle, he said. That year, the Maine Legislature decided to dump the 1901 state flag and voted for the current state flag, though no record of lawmakers’ deliberations exists.

The current flag features elements of the state seal – a farmer, a sailor, a star, a moose lounging under a pine tree, and the word Dirigo (Latin for “I lead” or “I direct”) – on a blue background. It’s a design similar to more than 20 other state flags and a holdover from the Civil War, Martucci said, when blue-clad Union troops carried the U.S. flag and blue flags to distinguish themselves from Southern troops, who wore gray and carried the red-backed Stars and Bars of the Confederate flag.

“By 1909, 80% of the Maine Legislature was made up of Civil War veterans or the sons of Civil War veterans,” he said. “The blue state flags reflect a nostalgia for that era.”


Two bills to restore the 1901 state flag made their way through committee review this spring and early summer, following similar proposals that failed in 2019 and 2021.

L.D. 86, sponsored by former Rep. Sean Paulhus, D-Bath, asked the Legislature to restore the 1901 state flag. L.D. 1069, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-New Gloucester, called for a state referendum on whether to restore the 1901 state flag and to redesignate the current state flag as the “state seal flag.”


Paulhus, who resigned from the Legislature in July after Gov. Janet Mills appointed him Sagadahoc County’s register of probate, said he favors a simpler, more graphic, more recognizable state flag.

He also believes the Maine state flag shouldn’t look like so many other state flags. Paulhus learned the finer points of vexillology when he led the effort to design a city flag for Bath in 2013-14 when he was a city councilor.

“Flags are supposed to be easy to see and easy to recognize,” Paulhus said. “I like the 1901 flag because it stands out. From a distance, you can recognize it as the Maine state flag.”

Brakey said he included the redesignation of the current state flag as the state seal flag “so people wouldn’t have to get rid of that flag. It’s still a part of Maine history.”

In the end, Brakey’s referendum proposal was added to L.D. 86 – without the redesignation requirement for the current state flag – and the legislation squeaked through last month with close party-line votes: 72-70 in the House, with all Republicans and five Democrats opposed, and 20-7 in the Senate, with only one Republican in favor and one Democrat opposed.

Many Republicans wanted to keep the current flag, Brakey said, in part because some have come to view the push for the 1901 flag as “woke” opposition to elements of the state seal, which features two white men and lacks relevance to many Maine residents past and present. Some legislators in this session discussed updating the state seal to be more gender-inclusive.


“People are saying it’s a woke effort to take the farmer and the sailor off the flag and make it gender-neutral,” Brakey said. “But I see that as a false narrative. A good seal doesn’t necessarily make a good flag. And the state seal on a blue background is like many other state flags.”

The partisan controversy surprised Paulhus. “I never intended it to be a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s just a flag.”

Like Paulhus, Brakey said he likes the simplicity of the 1901 flag, whose tree and star are set to replace the chickadee, pine cone, and tassel on the state’s primary license plate.

“People say it looks like a second-grader could draw it, but that’s part of the appeal,” Brakey said. “Anyone can draw it. Anyone can recognize it. We’re the Pine Tree State. People are already flying the 1901 flag. We’re just giving people the opportunity to ratify something they’ve already chosen.”


Kate Law, production manager at the Maine Flag Co. in Portland, appliques a pine tree onto the company’s stylized version of the original 1901 Maine state flag. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In truth, the controversy over the 1901 flag grew from a smart idea in a competitive marketplace.


The Maine Flag Co. in Portland started making its version of the 1901 flag in 2017, modeling it after the official Maine maritime flag that the company began making in 2013. Like the maritime flag issued in 1939, it features a chunky, stylized, solid green pine tree in the center and a blue star on a cream-colored background.

Each flag is sewn individually in the company’s workshop in the Old Port. Each piece of the design is hand-cut and appliqued on machines operated by expert seamstresses.

“It wasn’t our goal to get rid of the current state flag,” co-owner Bethany Field said. “We wanted to expand our business and capitalize on the strong Maine brand. Now, we have a real hard time keeping up with orders.”

The company has sold over 9,000 of its 1901 flags, plus hats, pillows, bags, wallets, T-shirts, and other items sold through its website and retailers such as L.L.Bean.

The Maine Flag Co. didn’t copyright its design, so soon other companies in Maine and out of state started making 1901 flags.

By 2018, Skowhegan-based Maine Stitching Specialties, a company that Field initially hired to help sew her flags, was making its own version of the 1901 flag.


Printed by an Illinois company, the Maine Stitching design is closer to the original 1901 flag, with a more realistic pine tree, a brown trunk, and three brown roots. Owner Julie Swain copyrighted her company’s design, which is featured on a variety of products sold at outlets in Rangeley and Kingfield and online.

“We don’t share the design because we don’t want to dilute the brand,” said Swain, who has sold over 10,000 of her 1901 flags.

Julie Swain, owner of Maine Stitching Specialties, in the Rangeley shop where she sells her 1901 Maine state flag merchandise. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Swain worries that Bellows, the secretary of state, will choose a stylized tree design for voters to consider in November 2024. “That would put us out of business,” she said. “I think it should be true to the original.”

Field and Chris Korzen, co-owners of the Maine Flag Co., aren’t worried about what happens at the polls. They say the law doesn’t specify an exact design for the flag, so there should be room for different interpretations.

“I don’t think it’s going to change the way consumers choose to buy our flags,” Korzen said. “Regardless of what happens, we’re going to keep making our flags, and we hope our customers feel the same.”

Martucci, the vexillologist, agrees with Korzen. He doesn’t think there should be one version of the 1901 flag. As a flag aficionado, he appreciates diversity in their designs. He believes the flag presented to voters should be a less detailed version of the original 1901 flag.

“State government is going to have to come up with a design for official purposes, but not for the general public,” Martucci said. “People should fly the flag they want.”

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