Symbolmania: January 2005

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By statute or resolution, legislators continue to adopt symbols to represent their state. Do these gestures trivialize the process?

By Alan Rosenthal

The Ohio legislature recessed at the end of May last session without having resolved a number of not-at-all-urgent issues--whether the smallmouth bass or the walleye pike would be designated the state fish, whether the papaw or apple would become the state fruit, whether the bullfrog or toad would be named the state amphibian and whether the hamburger would make the grade as the official state food.

For about a century now, legislatures by statute or resolution have been adopting symbols or emblems to represent the states. Ohio's state flower, for example, is the red carnation. It was symbolized in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated. McKinley had worn a red carnation in his lapel every day since entering politics in Ohio, and this seemed to be a way to honor him.

As of today, there are 75 different categories of state symbols, including the obvious ones, such as birds, trees, flowers and fish, and the not-so-obvious ones, such as cookies, pastries, snacks, soils and meals. Every state has its symbols. Texas, (with 25) has the most, followed by Massachusetts (20), South Carolina (19), Alabama (19) and Georgia (18). Some states, however, are symbol-deprived; Indiana and Iowa have only four and Hawaii has six.

Why They Do It

With so many major matters with which to deal, why should state legislatures pay any attention whatsoever to matters so minor? Who could possibly care whether the honeybee or ladybug wins the title of state insect? The fact is, some constituents do care.

Every state has some industry it wants to acknowledge and promote. And such industries lobby the legislature in order to be promoted. About 20 states have adopted milk as the official state beverage, hoping to advance the interests of their dairy farmers. Florida, however, chose orange juice, Ohio tomato juice, and Massachusetts cranberry juice.

Both Kentucky and Maryland celebrated one of their prized industries by honoring as the state horse the Thoroughbred. Washington's fruit is the apple, one of the largest industries in the state, while the sweet potato is the vegetable of choice in North Carolina, which is the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the nation. Oregon has the distinction of growing 99 percent of the entire U.S. commercial crop of hazelnuts, so no one should be surprised that it's the state nut.

Senator Kevin Coughlin of Ohio may have taken the promotion of a state industry one step farther. He introduced a bill to make the hamburger the official state food, not because Buckeyes produce or consume more hamburgers per capita than anywhere else, but in acknowledgment that both Wendy's and White Castle are headquartered in Ohio.

It would not be fair to accuse Coughlin, or others like him, of simply trying to promote business in their states. As representatives, legislators respond to their constituencies whenever the opportunity arises.

"I got a constituent that, for the last couple of years, has asked me to do this," Coughlin explained. Competitive speed-eater Dave "Coondog" O'Karma made a powerful case with research and evidence he brought to Coughlin. Two brothers from Ohio created the first hamburger in 1885, O'Karma says, when they were vending sausage sandwiches on the fair circuit, ran out of pork, and had to use beef as a replacement. Since they were at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y, at the time, when asked what the dickens they were purveying, they came up with the name that today pertains to what may well be America's most popular food.

Teaching Kids

Probably the major source of symbol introductions, and enactments as well, is school children. Teachers and their classes account for more than half the symbol bills around today. Look at the record of school children in Illinois and Massachusetts. In a 1907 referendum, kids voted statewide to select the Illinois tree and flower, with the legislature giving its approval the following year. In 1928 they voted in the Illinois bird, with the legislature giving its assent a year later. Since then, Illinois school children have been responsible for the state insect, fish, animal and prairie grass. Meanwhile, Massachusetts school children enshrined the ladybug, cranberry, tabby cat and corn muffin.

Legislators are especially responsive to proposals put forth by kids, since they realize how difficult it is to get young people to participate in the political process. What better way to promote civic education, they feel, than to give children "hands-on experience" of the legislative process.

In justifying her sponsorship of a bullfrog bill, Ohio Senator Teresa Fedor testified about how she was approached by Grizzell Middle School students and their teachers. The teachers felt that this was the way to teach "How a Bill Becomes a Law," and Fedor agreed.

Along similar lines, Ohio's Representative Steve Reinhard was persuaded to sponsor an apple bill by a fourth grade class, which organized a campaign as part of a project. "I figure, how better to get them engaged in the legislative process," Reinhard said. "Hopefully this is something that will keepÉthem involved in the process when they get to be voting age."

Both teachers and legislators have the best of intentions when they involve kids. First-hand experience can work, but the lessons have to be pointed out. They are by no means self-evident. One lesson pertains to the deliberative aspects of the legislative process. Like other legislation, the case for a symbol has to be made in substantive terms. For example, in 1985 the Tunbridge Soil Series was designated the Vermont state soil. It was selected from more than 160 different soil series in the state--on its merits, not on its politics.

"It's the soil that makes Vermont hills greener than those either in New Hampshire or New York," according to an expert at the University of Vermont. A powerful case for Tunbridge, indeed.

Another lesson, of course, is about lobbying. Many symbol bills are lobbied intensely, just like other legislation. School children learn to mobilize grassroots support and lobby legislators directly, which is all valuable experience.

It is important that school children get the right lessons and not the wrong ones about representative democracy and the legislative process. Our system is premised on diversity, with people having different values, interests and priorities. Even kids' bills run into opposition.

The proposal of Massachusetts school children to name Boston Cream Pie the state dessert did not go uncontested; it had to beat out the Toll House Cookie and Indian Pudding. Nor did the honeybee that same year win hands down in Wisconsin. It had to turn back the monarch butterfly, dragon fly, ladybug and mosquito before it could claim title to "state insect." The choice of a state mammal divides Washington, with the eastern side of the state preferring a land animal, while the western side wants a marine animal.

In 1977, a fifth grade class in Concord, N.H., learned something else when its ladybug bill got temporarily derailed, despite the research, strategyzing and lobbying efforts of the class.

The House committee, to which the bill had been referred, did commend both the enthusiasm and intelligence of the children and the merits and capabilities of the ladybug. But the committee, recognizing that the ladybug was already the preferred insect of three other states, also recommended the appointment of a State Insect Selection Board to broaden the scope of the search. Nevertheless in a showdown on the House floor, the committee was overturned, and the ladybug was adopted by a 185-135 vote; the Senate then gave the bill its unanimous approval. The fifth graders had had a close call and they learned that in the legislature, as in life, it's not over until it's over.

Ohio's bullfrog proponents have not fared as well. The frog bill has been languishing in the legislature for four years, but it does come back session after session.

Both teacher and students benefitted from a special lesson in 2003 about the uncertainties of the process. The teacher requested help from a faculty member at Ohio State University, the state's "authority" on frogs. But neither teacher nor students were prepared for the "help" they received. Instead of bolstering their case, the OSU professor made an argument against the bullfrog. It doesn't eat insects, as the class believed, but it eats other frogs. Who wants to enshrine an amphibian that eats its own!

Therefore, a better pick for Ohio amphibians, according to the professor, is the American toad, the friend of the farmer because it eats caterpillars, slugs and snails. "Sorry if this news is disappointing" he informed the teacher and students, "but as a conservation biologist, I have to recommend what the data suggest is the right thing to do."

The class, however, stuck with the bullfrog, although the bill sponsor indicated that she was wavering a bit and was open to either the frog or toad. No matter, it was unlikely that either frog or toad would make it to the floor. The Ohio legislature was not in the habit, at least in recent years, of bringing such a bill to a vote. Maybe, these school children would learn one of the most important lessons of representative democracy--you don't always win.

Too Many or Too Few

Legislative leaders have tried to keep such bills from coming to the floor in Ohio and elsewhere too. Former Ohio Senate President Richard Finan felt this way and probably represented legislative leaders across the country in his unwillingness to bring symbol bills to the floor. "If I let one out on the floor," he said, "I couldn't hold others back." Furthermore, Finan was of the opinion that such bills trivialize not only the major symbols already enacted by law, but also the legislative process itself.


He recalls vividly what happened in 1973 when Chuck Kurfess, then Ohio's House minority leader, introduced a ladybug bill on behalf of a fifth grade. When the bill was heard in committee, the teacher brought students all dressed as ladybugs to testify and when it came up on the floor the whole gallery was filled with children done up as ladybugs. Both Kurfess and Finan were embarrassed by the infestation, but who could vote against the bill?

When brought to a vote, however, legislatures are adept at compromising interests. That is no doubt why Tennessee has two official fish, a commercial fish and a game fish, three official insects and two state rocks. It is why Vermont has both a cold and warm water fish and as many as three state rocks. It is why Wisconsin has a state animal, a state wild- life animal and a state domestic animal. In the 2003 session of the Texas Legislature, a resolution was introduced to make the sopaipilla the official state pastry. It was amended in the House to add strudel as a co-official state pastry. One can just imagine the logrolling that went on when Oklahoma adopted its state meal of fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbeque pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, pecan pie and black-eyed peas. Amendment after amendment must have been attached to the original, slimmed-down bill?

It might appear that states have adopted too many symbols. But the fact is that over the years, the 50 states have enacted only 575 symbols into law. Legislatures have resisted many opportunities, as the many categories of symbols that currently exist suggest. Moreover, there are categories that do not yet exist, but are not beyond the ingenuity of man (or woman or child). The record is not bad at all; in 100 years the states on average have only 11.5 animals, vegetables, minerals, etc. that have achieved symbolic status. The average passage rate is one symbol a decade, as compared to the average of roughly 4,000 bills passed each decade.

Symbolic representation may have run its course, though. Most symbols that can withstand charges of "silliness" are already in place, and some states may feel pangs of symbol overload. For instance, this past session witnessed only two resolutions introduced in the Iowa House. Neither made it out of committee. And there were no symbol introductions in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Vermont or Virginia. In Washington five symbols were proposed, but none were enacted, and in Massachusetts 11 pieces of symbol legislation were filed. Texas, which leads the nation, has made serious efforts to control the enactment of symbols. In 2001, legislation was passed requiring stricter standards for symbols. The reform may be working, since it is reported that the demand has decreased, but not disappeared. In the past session only two concurrent resolutions on symbols were introduced; both passed.

There is always the danger that legislatures will overdo it, but somehow they generally seem to revert to balance. As Ohio Representative Reinhard says of his apple bill, "It's not a high priority." It isn't, and leaders and members alike tend to keep things in perspective. They manage to engage in symbolic representation, and do some civic education while at it, without making unreasonable demands on legislative time or the legislative process.

As much as anything, symbol bills serve to lighten up what normally is a very serious business. They constitute a very small proportion of bills introduced, but a large proportion of grins induced. Ohio's Coughlin explained that while generally he didn't do symbol bills, "There's room for a little bit of fun, even at the State House." There ought to be

What qualifies?

State symbols or emblems range broadly, but for present purposes include animals, vegetables, minerals and some of their offshoots. Dances, tartans, colors, boats, quilts and sports do not qualify for symbolic status in this survey.

What are the most popular state symbols or emblems?

  • Birds (including game bird and water fowl)--49 states
  • Trees--47 states
  • Flowers (including wildflowers)--45 states
  • Fish (including freshwater, saltwater, commercial, and game fish)--40 states
  • Fossils--36 states
  • Insects (including butterfly and bug in New Jersey)--35 states

What are the most unusual state symbols?

South Dakota's kuchen is the state dessert; New Mexico's bizcochito is the state cookie; and Georgia's grits is the state prepared food. Oklahoma has a state meal: fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas. (It is hoped that no one in Oklahoma or anywhere else feels obliged to finish this meal.)

Alan Rosenthal, a renowned expert on state legislatures, is a professor at Rutgers University.