Flag Books Real and Imagined

Dr. Whitney Smith, the world’s premier flag scholar and editor and publisher of The Flag Bulletin, the scholarly journal of vexillology (the study of flags) asked some flag book collectors each to write a brief piece on our most exciting find.  This is my contribution – it was published in Flag Bulletin No. 219 (cover date January-April 2005).

I remember the time about 25 years ago when I passed a small Russian language bookstore in a residential neighborhood of San Francisco.  I don’t read Russian and it looked like all they had were new books, but you never know until you try.  This was during the Soviet era and I thought there was a chance they might have a modern pamphlet on Red Army insignia or something on that level.

“Sorry,” the man said in a heavy Russian accent.  “I have no insignia books.  I have no heraldry books either.  The only flag book I have is old.”  Old?  I quivered like a hunting dog.  “May I see it, please?”

With a shrug the man reached below the counter and brought up an original Imperial Russian Navy flag book (Albom Flagov; St. Petersburg, 1904).  It had well over 100 lithographed color pates, similar in many ways to the British Admiralty’s handsome Flags of All Nations of the period but of course in Russian.

There were 19 plates of Russian flags (many of which I had never seen before) and illustrations of many German princely standards and minor flags of other countries that I had never seen either.  The book still had its original cover (inside a modern buckram case) and many sets of changes and additions had been tipped in, presumably as they were issued by the Russian Admiralty.

Was I interested?  Well, actually, yes I was.  Instantly I put down on the counter all the money I had in my pockets, as a deposit, and returned very promptly the next day with the rest.

That’s probably my juiciest single score in real life.  But I often dream that I am in an antiquarian bookstore and find a cache of wonderful flag books.  It is different each time, but always there are books completely new to me, beautiful books full of clear color illustrations of flags I’ve never seen before.  (My mind must generate these new flags unconsciously because I’m sure I would recognize in my sleep any actual flag pattern I would recognize while awake.) 

Sometimes there are only a few of these wonderful books, sometimes there are dozens – albums, reference works, pamphlets, monographs, official publications, books old and new, large and small, but all in good condition and full of brilliant pictures.  Usually, as in life, the cache is in an out-of-the-way section of the bookstore, on a dusty forgotten shelf where no one looks; often, as in life, the books have blank spines.  The brief time in those recurring dreams between finding the books and waking up are among the happiest moments of my life.