Strange Official State Symbols

We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.

Most states have appointed an official song, bird, beverage, or other common symbol that represents the particular culture, economy, geology, or history of the region. But sometimes, a state can get creative (and in some cases, highly specific) with what they choose to designate an official state symbol. In California’s case, it’s a state fabric. And in Arkansas, a state historic cooking vessel. Here are 25 of the strangest state symbols that may surprise you.

Alabama’s State Shell: Johnstone’s Junonia

Pile of seashells
Credit: amfiloxia_68/ Unsplash

Alabama boasts several scenic and recreational coastal spots along the Gulf. The sandy shores aren’t just a place for play, however: They’re home to a variety of wildlife, including the large sea snails who leave behind Johnstone’s Junonia seashells, the state’s official shell since 1990. (The scientific name for the shell is the Scaphella junonia johnstoneae.) The spotted mollusk exoskeleton is common to the Gulf Coast and was named in honor of Kathleen Yerger Johnstone, an amateur conchologist (someone who studies mollusk shells) from Mobile, Alabama. In total, 15 states have named one of their regional maritime mollusks as an official state shell.

Arizona’s State Neckwear: Bolo Tie

Three bolo ties with different decorated charms on them
Credit: W. Scott McGill/ Shutterstock

Decades before Southwestern style became all the rage, Arizona named the bolo tie its official state neckwear. The bolo tie (sometimes called a bola tie) is a staple of the Western look: The necktie consists of a cord or piece of braided leather that is fed through a sliding clasp, which tightens around the neck and is finished with decorative metal tips. Often associated with cowboys, the bolo tie was invented in the 1940s but wasn’t widely available until after it appeared in a Western wear catalogue in the mid-1950s. Arizona named the ubiquitous Western piece its official neckwear in 1971, and it has since gotten its due in museum exhibits around the state. New Mexico and Texas also named the bolo tie their official state tie in 2007.

Arkansas’ State Historic Cooking Vessel: Dutch Oven

Traditional Dutch oven over campfire
Credit: EntropyWorkshop/ iStock

Since 2001, Arkansas has recognized the Dutch oven as its official state historic cooking vessel. The kitchen staple has evolved over the years into a colorful, enamel-coated dish that is as much a piece of decor as it is versatile cookware, but the tool originated as a sturdy black cast iron pot resembling a small cauldron. Brought into the state by early settlers, Dutch ovens were common by the early 1800s and considered a necessity by pioneers, who used them for just about all fireside cooking — they were (and still are) handy for roasting, braising, frying, boiling, and baking. One other state also designated the Dutch oven its state cooking pot — Utah made it official in 1997.

Credit: gmalandra/ iStock

In 1853, German immigrant Levi Strauss moved to San Francisco in the midst of the gold rush and founded his namesake denim company. To recognize its success, the state named the fabric an official state symbol in 2016. The bill, sponsored by California Democrat assembly member Marc Levine, stated that California was responsible for about 75% of the premium denim sold around the world. In Southern California alone, the denim industry reportedly employs more than 200,000 people, making it the largest fashion manufacturing hub in the United States. (Despite the company’s origins, however, Levi’s are not manufactured in California.) The bill also likened the history of denim to the history of California itself: practical, hard-working, and a symbol of American culture.

Connecticut’s State Heroine: Prudence Crandall

The school that Prudence Crandall opened with fence in front
Credit: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES/ Shutterstock

In 1995, Connecticut became the only state with an official state heroine. Prudence Crandall opened the first school for African-American women in New England after first attempting (unsuccessfully) to integrate her classroom. She opened the new school in 1833 but soon found herself in harm’s way for the deed. Crandall was arrested, spent a night in jail, and wound up on trial twice for opening the school. She and her students continued to face violence and threats from the townspeople. Sadly, after only 18 months, she closed the school and left Canterbury, but today she remains the state’s official heroine for the inroads she made toward equality. Connecticut is also the only state with an official hero, Nathan Hale, an American soldier and spy who was captured during an intelligence-gathering mission in the Revolutionary War.

Florida’s State Day: Pascua Day

Aerial view of St. Augustine, Florida
Credit: Michael Warren/ iStock 

Every year on April 2, Florida celebrates itself on Pascua Florida Day. The official state day, designated by the Legislature in 1953, honors Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León’s first European expedition to the state. He arrived on the shores of present-day St. Augustine in search of gold and the mythical Fountain of Youth in 1513. Historians believe the state’s name came from the discovery date’s proximity to Easter, or “Pascua” in Spanish — a very important date to the Catholic explorer — and one of Spain’s celebrations of the religious holiday, known as “Pascua Florida,” or Feast of Flowers.

Georgia’s State Beef Barbecue Championship Cook-Off: Shoot the Bull Barbecue Championship

Fire coming out of top of barbecue grill with pool and lounge chairs in background
Credit: Adene Sanchez/ iStock

Southern cooking is serious business. That became even more evident in 1997, when the General Assembly of Georgia designated the Shoot the Bull Barbecue Championship as the state’s official beef barbecue championship cook-off. The popular annual event, held in the small town of Hawkinsville, is sponsored by the local Civitan Club. Proceeds go toward research into Down’s Syndrome and other developmental disabilities and also help send children with disabilities to the Civitan Foundation’s summer camp. The Legislature’s bill recognized not only the cook-off’s contributions to the community, but also the “quality and flavor” of the barbecue. Competitors and spectators come from all over the state.Georgia also recognizes an official state pork barbecue championship cookoff — the Big Pig Jig.

Indiana’s State Language: Sign Language

Woman in a orange sweater doing sign language
Credit: GizemBDR/ iStock

In addition to English, Indiana counts American Sign Language as an official state language. A bill passed in 1995 recognized signing as a “standard, independent language with its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and cultural heritage.” The state of Maine also recognizes American Sign Language as an official state language, specifically for the deaf community. Like any other language, though, signing is not universal, and different countries use varying versions of sign language, with ASL being most common in the U.S. and Canada. In recent years, concerns about the long-term survival of American Sign Language have surfaced, due to cuts to funding of schools and the preference for rapidly evolving technological hearing enhancements, such as high-tech cochlear implants.

Illinois’ State Exercise: Cycling

A black bicycle leaning up against a red wall
Credit: martenbjork/ Unsplash

In January 2018, Illinois designated cycling as the official state exercise. Representative Dave Severin introduced the bill to encourage residents to adopt an active lifestyle for long-term health, pointing out the low-impact and accessible nature of the activity. Cycling has played a big part in Illinois’ history: Throughout the 1890s, Chicago was the bicycle manufacturing capital of the U.S., building two-thirds of the country’s bikes across 88 local companies. The city of Chicago has also long been a leader in incorporating green space and bicycle trails into city planning — the nearly 20-mile-long lakefront trail, officially designated a bike path in 1963, is a particular standout. Illinois isn’t the only state of cycling fans, however: Delaware recognizes bicycling as its official state sport, too.

Kansas’ State Red and White Wine Grapes: Chambourcin and Vignoles

Close-up of cluster of grapes on a vine
Credit: Robert D Brozek/ Shutterstock

Most states count several agricultural items among their official state symbols, but Kansas is the only one to have official red and white wine grapes. Although the state is perhaps better known for its production of wheat, corn, and cattle, it’s also an abundant grape grower during particularly favorable seasons. In 2019, the Chambourcin grape, a French-American hybrid grape, became the state’s official red wine grape, and the Vignoles grape, another hybrid grape, became the white wine grape. The committee — who joked about sampling the goods before passing the bill — recognized the designation as a great marketing opportunity for the state’s 50 vineyards and wineries.

Kentucky’s State Music: Bluegrass

Person playing the banjo seen from above
Credit: nedjelly/ iStock

It’s only fitting that the official music of “The Bluegrass State” would be — you guessed it — bluegrass. Though the upbeat music descends from traditional Irish, Scottish, and English ballads — as well as traditional African American blues and jazz — bluegrass as we know it today originated in the 1940s, when Kentucky native William “Bill” Munroe pioneered the sound. Named after the dense and lush Kentucky bluegrass that grows throughout the state, his band, the Blue Grass Boys, inspired the genre’s name. The fast-plucking, harmonic roots music was declared the state’s official music in 2007. And, yes, there’s also an official state bluegrass song — Bill Munroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” received the designation back in 1988.

Maryland’s State Sport: Jousting

Two people jousting on horses
Credit: carrollphoto/ iStock

Of the 50 states, only 14 have declared official sports. Maryland was the first state to do so, designating jousting in 1962. The medieval sport, in which knights engaged in a lance fight while on horseback, has been popular in Maryland since the colonial 1600s; the state’s first governor, Cecil Calvert, introduced the sport from his native England. Its popularity took off during the Civil War, when tournaments were held to raise money for communities in need. The modern version of the sport, passed down through Maryland families, remains popular but is much more civil — “ring tournaments” see competitors race their horse along a track and spear rings with their lance along the way, taking the place of the violent duels of the past.

Massachusetts’ State Muffin: Corn Muffin

A batch of freshly baked corn muffins
Credit: bhofack2/ iStock

One doesn’t typically think of Massachusetts when thinking of corn, but cornbread and corn muffins have long been a staple of New England cooking. (And, of course, corn is a must-have in all those Bay State seafood bakes and boils.) In 1986, after a petition by the state’s schoolchildren, the Legislature recognized the corn muffin as the official state muffin. The Massachusetts corn muffin follows in the tradition of northern — or Yankee — cornbread and is known to be exceptionally sweet. Two other states have also named official state muffins — Minnesota has the blueberry muffin, and New York has the apple muffin.

Minnesota’s State Photograph: “Grace”

A film camera resting on a slab of wood on a table
Credit: howardbouchevereau/ Unsplash

Minnesota boasts one of the most unique official symbols of all — it’s the only state to have a state photograph. “Grace,” captured by photographer Eric Enstrom in Bovey, Minnesota, around 1920, features a white-bearded elderly man bowing his head to give thanks over a bowl of soup and loaf of bread. Enstrom has said he composed the photograph to represent not only the humble circumstances of the area’s first immigrants, but also their survival in the face of hardships. In 2002, “Grace” was appointed as the state’s official photograph.

Mississippi’s State Toy: Teddy Bear

A teddy bear with a red ribbon tied around his neck
Credit: sandym10/ Unsplash

The state of Mississippi has a special connection to this fuzzy childhood favorite. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt — often referred to as “Teddy” — was on a hunting trip in the Magnolia State when, after three days of no catch, he was offered a captive bear to hunt. Roosevelt refused in the name of good sportsmanship; the news traveled throughout the country, with political cartoonist Clifford Berryman depicting the story in The Washington Post. Soon after, a New York toy store owner received permission to market a stuffed bear as “Teddy’s Bear,” and the nickname “Teddy bear” caught on as a descriptor for the plush children’s toy. In 2002, a group of children from Plantersville School urged their government to recognize the stuffed animal, and in 2002, the Teddy bear became the official state toy.

Nebraska’s State Soft Drink: Kool-Aid

Kool aid in a pitcher with a full glass and paper straws on wooden table
Credit: Rimma_Bondarenko/ iStock

Many states have an official state beverage (the most popular: milk), but Nebraska is the only one with an official state soft drink. Edwin Perkins invented Kool-Aid in Hastings, Nebraska, in 1927. It was first sold as a bottled liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack, but after shipping proved too difficult, it was separated into its best-known powdered form, which came in packets that Perkins designed and printed himself. The Cornhusker State is particularly proud of the popular juice crystals and celebrates accordingly: Kool-Aid was named the state soft drink in 1998, and the state has a Kool-Aid Museum, an award-winning annual festival, and even the Kool-Aid Man’s footprints immortalized in cement.

New Mexico’s State Insect: Tarantula Hawk Wasp

Close-up of tarantula hawk wasp on a flower
Credit: D. A. Boyd/ Shutterstock

Of all the official state insects, none has a name so intimidating as New Mexico’s tarantula hawk wasp. The wasp — official name Pepsis formosa — is one of the largest in the U.S. The stingers alone in females grow as long as one-third of an inch, causing a sting that is said to be one of the most painful of any insect. The tarantula hawk wasp was named for its unique egg-laying habits: It hunts and paralyzes tarantulas, then drags them back to the wasp’s their burrows and lays eggs on them; when the babies hatch, they feast on the spider. The wasp was designated the official state insect after elementary students from Edgewood, New Mexico, selected three potential state insects and asked other students around the state to vote. The entire class attended the legislative hearing in Santa Fe when the bill was introduced in 1989.

New York’s State Bush: Lilac

Close up view of lilac flowers on a lilac bush
Credit: belart84/ Unsplash

The rose has been New York’s official state flower since 1955, so with that honor already taken, the lilac tree became the state bush in 2006. Rochester is known for its lilacs (hence the nickname “The Lilac City”), and every spring, hosts the Rochester Lilac Festival in Highland Park, showcasing more than 1,800 bushes with over 500 different varieties of flowers. New Hampshire has also recognized the lilac as its state flower since 1919. It’s believed that Rochester, New Hampshire, may have even nabbed the nickname “The Lilac City” in an unspoken competition with the New York city of the same name.

North Carolina’s State Toast: “A Toast”

Group of people toasting with red wine
Credit: AsiaVision/ Unsplash

A toast can be as simple as a clink of the glass and a “cheers” with friends, but in North Carolina, it’s much more complex. A poem called “The Old North State: A Toast” (also known as “The Tar Heel Toast”), by Leonora Monteiro Martin, has long been associated with the state’s celebration of independence. It was written for and first recited at a 1904 dinner in honor of the state’s history, and within a few years was recognized as a patriotic and nostalgic tribute to the early pioneers. In the early 1930s, the poem was set to music by composer Mary Burke Kerr, a music teacher in Sampson County; the General Assembly requested that Raleigh radio station WPTF play the song, and from that point on, North Carolinians adopted it as a rallying cry. “A Toast” became the official state toast in 1957.

Oklahoma’s State Flying Mammal: Mexican Free-Tailed Bat

Mexican free-tailed bats flying in a large group
Credit: GizmoPhoto/ Shutterstock

Oklahoma had already named the buffalo its official mammal in 1972. So when the state decided to honor one of its most unusual inhabitants, it got more specific, making the Mexican free-tailed bat its state flying mammal in 2006. Oklahoma happens to be the breeding ground for the bat, whose skinny, mouse-like tail is the reason for its name and makes it an anomaly in the bat world. Migratory patterns bring the bats from Mexico to the caves of Oklahoma, where they have new offspring, and back to Mexico come fall. Their arrival delights tourists, who flock to the Selman Bat Cave to see the hundreds of thousands of bats every year. Buthe Mexican free-tailed bats aren’t just a great tourism attraction; they also help keep the local mosquito population in check.

Oregon’s State Microbe: Brewer’s Yeast

Spoonful of bewer's yeast in a wooden spoon
Credit: Nedim_B/ iStock

In 2013, Oregon became the first state to name a microbe an official state symbol. Saccharomyces cerevisiae — commonly called brewer’s or baker’s yeast — turns sugar into ethanol (aka alcohol) and is a key component in the production of beer, wine, and spirits. Oregon, known as a craft beer hub around the world, owes more than just its tasty brews to the unassuming microorganism; in 2019, the beer industry contributed an impressive $6.6 billion to Oregon’s economy, accounting for about 43,000 jobs. In 2019, New Jersey also named a state microbe, and in June 2020, Illinois did as well.

Rhode Island’s State Beverage: Coffee Milk

Person pouring milk into a glass of coffee
Credit: RyanJLane/ iStock

One of the most common categories of state symbols is food and drink; within that, 28 states have designated their own state beverage. Milk is the most common official state beverage, followed by various kinds of fruit juices. But Rhode Island stands out as the only one to name coffee milk as its state beverage. What exactly is coffee milk? Rhode Islanders will find it in the refrigerated section of the grocery store next to other flavored milks such as chocolate or strawberry, only this is made with sweet coffee syrup or coffee extract. It first became popular in America’s smallest state in the 1920s and has remained a relatively regional favorite ever since.

South Carolina’s State Lowcountry Handcraft: Sweetgrass Basket Weaving

Rows of sweetgrass baskets
Credit: JHVEPhoto/ Shutterstock

Sweetgrass basket weaving has been a tradition in South Carolina’s lowcountry since the 17th century, when it was brought to the U.S. by enslaved people from West Africa. The baskets, though originally (and still occasionally) made primarily out of bulrush, are woven out of tightly coiled regional sweetgrass and are revered for not only their sturdy construction, but also their intricate craftsmanship. Today, makers sell their wares in markets and on busy streets in downtown Charleston and throughout the state. South Carolina honored the tradition and became the only state with an official craft when it designated the sweetgrass basket as the official state lowcountry handcraft in 2006.

Vermont’s State Amphibian: Northern Leopard Frog

Northern leopard frog sits on a log
Credit: Paul Reeves Photography/ Shutterstock

State symbols often represent little more than the prevalence of a particular plant or animal to a region. In Vermont, however, the northern leopard frog was named the state’s official amphibian in 1998, for reasons much more thoughtful. The bill acknowledged that a declining northern leopard frog population was indicative of unhealthy and alarming environmental changes — for animals and humans alike. Additionally, the senate bill highlighted the frog’s appearance (ranging from golden to green, with spots that are surrounded by light halos) and likened it to the natural beauty of the state. Lastly, the northern leopard frog was recognized for its role in keeping Vermont’s wetlands clean and helping to maintain the state’s stunning landscape. Not bad for a humble amphibian.

Washington State’s Endemic Mammal: Olympic Marmot

Olympic marmot resting on a rock surrounded by grasses
Credit: westlacountphoto/ iStock

Endemic creatures are special: They’re found in only one location on the planet, and in Washington, the Olympic Marmot was named the state’s official endemic mammal in 2009. The Olympic marmot (scientific name: Marmota olympus) is a rodent in the squirrel family, brownish in color with a long, bushy tail and measuring about the size of a house cat. They’re found only in the mountain meadows in the middle elevation of the Olympic Peninsula, situated in the western part of the state. The highly social creature has a group of fourth- and fifth-graders from Seattle’s Wedgwood School to thank for its official state status. The Legislature agreed to help promote awareness of the endemic mammal, which saw a drop in population due to non-native coyotes in the 2000s.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.