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Local library's windows offer a glimpse back in time

The Yellow Dragon Banner of Imperial Qing China, which had already been overthrown when Abbie Greenleaf Library was built in 1912. (Photo by Justin Roshak) (click for larger version)
December 12, 2018
FRANCONIA—The stained-glass flags in the windows of the Abbie Greenlaf library look out on Main Street, but they also offer a glimpse back at a moment in history—to 1912, when the flags they depict flew over a very different world.

America's own stars-and-stripes had two fewer stars than today, and was less than a year old; Arizona and New Mexico became states in early 1912. The 48-star flag would fly for 47 years, until Alaska joined the union in 1959, and is the second-longest lasting design; only the modern, 50-star flag has flown longer.

At least one flag was out-of-date before the library was even built: the Yellow Dragon Banner of Imperial China, which had been ruled by the Manchu Dynasty for 268 years. Their reign ended shortly after the turn of the century, when the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi installed her infant nephew Pu Yi — who would become the last Emperor of China — on the throne in a vain attempt to retain her own power by ruling through him. Her death in 1908 left the Manchu regime fatally weakened, and the young and ill prepared Pu Yi was dethroned by a revolution in 1911 that led to the establishment of a short-lived and ineffective nationalist republic which was itself toppled in 1948 by the Communist forces of Mao Tse Tung.

Another ancient eastern power, the Ottoman Empire, would fall apart sixteen years later, after World War I. Its successor, the Republic of Turkey, kept its red and white crescent-and-star flag, which still flies over Istanbul, old Constantinople, the City of the World's Desire.

In 1912, a united Italy was a newcomer to the European scene. Its vertical green, white, and red stripes remain today, but in 1912 it carried the crossed shield of Savoy, whose kings led the wars of unification, and who became Kings of Italy for their efforts. Mussolini tried to replace the shield with the bundled-sticks of the Fascists, and socialists tried to add a Roman eagle, but today the flag flies unmarked.

Some flags are familiar—the red and white cross of Switzerland has remained unchanged for at least four hundred years—and the Nordic crosses of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway were then as they are today. The flags of several younger nations, like Belgium (1830), Cuba (1868), and Panama (1903) remain unchanged, despite wars and revolutions.

Though an old nation, Japan's red and white rising-sun flag only became official around 1870. The blue, white, and red French tricolor, symbol of the Revolution, was buried after Napoleon's defeat, restored in 1830, and has since survived coups, revolutions, and two world wars.

The flags of three old European empires would fall within six years of the library's completion.

Imperial Germany—united only 41 years before—was still ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, under the black, white, and red tricolor. Both flag and kaiser would fall following Germany's defeat in World War I, and the rise of the republican black, red, and gold under the Weimer government. The Nazi government restored the imperial tricolor, which flew alongside the swastika banner until its fall in 1945. Both East and West Germany used versions of the black, red, and gold, which today flies over a re-united Germany.

The flag of Austria-Hungary proclaimed its hybrid status: one half, the the red-white-red of Austria, the other half, the red-white-green of Hungary, with two shields and two crowns. Officially, old Franz Joseph, who had ruled since 1867, was both Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and the two nations were governed separately. The Dual Monarchy, as it was called, would dissolve in 1918, only two years after Franz Joseph's death, following defeat in World War I. Today, 13 independent nations occupy the same territory over which its bifurcated banner once flew.

The third great European empire to perish in the Great War was Russia, whose white, blue, and red stripes would be drowned by the red flag of communism following the 1917 revolution. The tricolor returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, and today, the flag of the czars flies once again flies over Putin's Russia.

Many nations are conspicuous by their absence: whole swaths of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were, in 1912, still ruled by European empires. A single flag—the British Union Jack—flew over a quarter of the world's lands and peoples, prompting the famous assertion that the sun never set on Britain's territories.

That too, would change in the coming, busy century. Within two years, the world would be at war, revolution would march through ancient capitals, and flags would rise and fall with the tide of politics. The windows in the library are snapshots of a moment in time, a busy time in an ever-changing world. That much has not changed.

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