GREAT LAKES WHALE ORIGINALLY ON WISCONSIN STATE FLAG

A Great Lakes whale was depicted directly above the shield on the design of the flag adopted by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in anticipation of being granted statehood. To the left of the shield stands a seaman, more specifically, a whaler, holding a hank of rope. (Great Lakes whaling, of course, was practiced by the more humane method of lassoing, rather than employing the cruel practice of harpooning, as was traditionally done in marine whaling.)

In those days, the lead mining interests in the Southwestern corner of the state, represented by the miner standing to the right of the shield, held much sway in the Legislature and, with the help of wealthy owners of the logging industry up North, were able to get the whale replaced by a badger in the design approved in the first session after Wisconsin was admitted into the Union in 1848. The representatives of the mining and logging interests expressed concern that sooner or later Wisconsin would have a University and their sports teams might become known as the Whales.

The motivation for seeking to replace the image of the whale was rooted more in a desire to maintain domestic tranquility than in a fight over “naming rights” to sports teams, however. It’s well known that the occurrence of obesity among 19th century women was no more prominent than in logging camps, where the phrase, “Eats like a lumberjack” was applied to the women who did the cooking. In what has become known as “The Two-by-Four Compromise,” a figure of a badger was substituted for the whale. Curiously, the flag carries no depiction representing a logger; or does it? In the parlance of the day, someone avoiding an issue was compared to a badger scurrying into its burrow. Meeting minutes from early legislative committee hearings suggest that the logging interests were satisfied in not having to convince their wives that the whale on the flag wasn’t a furtive reference to their figures.

– Gary Tefft – Menomonee Falls, WI May 27, 2016