Credit: David B. Martucci

The City of Portland, Maine, unlike Portland, Oregon, does not have a world-class flag. In fact, technically it has no official flag at all, as there is no record that the City Council ever voted to adopt one.

For many years — although just how many is not clear — the city has flown an unofficial blue flag with a variant of the city seal set on a gold disc with blue and white details in the center, surrounded by gold inscriptions. The words usually read, “City of Portland, Maine” arched above the top, with the city motto, “Resurgam,” which is latin for “I shall rise again,” at the bottom.

[MORE: Support builds to adopt new city flag in Portland]

The seal contains a shield bearing a ship supported by two dolphins. The shield is set on top of an anchor and a bird, which is supposed to represent a phoenix, holding a wreath and standing on top of the anchor. The official seal also has other inscriptions that are usually not included on the flag.

The phoenix as an emblem for Portland was used early on a militia flag, as recorded in The Cumberland Gazette on Oct. 25, 1790:

“… Amongst others, that of a Standard gave great satisfaction. The ground of It is a bright buff, and the device (referring to the rapid recovery of this town from the disasters of its conflagration) is happily designed. It represents a Phoenix rising from its ashes.”

Over the years, newspaper columns and books have referred to the ship on Portland’s seal as either a Roman Galley — a slave-powered naval vessel of war — or a ship under construction or repair. Likely the latter may have been the original inspiration, but the exact meaning of the ship has been lost to history.

Experts in flag design — known as vexillographers — generally agree that placing complex seals and words on a flag makes it more difficult to easily identify when flying at the top of a tall pole. The symbols should be self-evident. In other words, If you need words to explain what the flag represents, the symbols are not doing their job.

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Also, practically speaking, letters appear backwards on the reverse side of the flag unless you get a much more expensive two-sided flag, which is actually two flags sewn back to back.

The germ of a better design may exist in the current symbols. By reducing the design to just a few elements and dispensing with the letters, a flag that can be easily identified from any distance could be flying on poles all over Maine’s largest city.

As a suggestion for a better design, perhaps keeping the blue flag, gold disk, phoenix and anchor would make sense.

Something like this:

David B. Martucci was president of the North American Vexillological Association from 1998 to 2004. He’s a judge in BDN Maine’s Portland flag re-design contest.