For the first few hundred years of its existence, the City of New York lacked an official flag and seal. By the end of the 19th century, the city was flying an unofficial flag featuring a round blue seal on a white field.
In 1914, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the installation of the first mayor under English rule, the City Art Commission appointed a blue-ribbon committee to create the city’s first official seal and flag. The committee consulted with the New-York Historical Society to study historical seals used by city government under the Dutch and English, to incorporate their symbolism into the new city seal and flag.
The Committee described their proposed flag this way:
In our flag, the colors are Dutch, the arms are English, the crest is distinctively American, but the flag as such is the flag of the City, which has grown from these beginnings to be the home of all nations, the great cosmopolitan city of the world, the City of New York.
— Committee of the Art Commission Associates, Seal and Flag of the City of New York, p. 84
The flag was approved on April 6, 1915 and first unveiled to the public on June 24.
The current design dates from December 30, 1977, when the seal was subtly modified. The date was changed from 1664 (when the Kingdom of England took possession) to 1625. The change was proposed by the Irish-born Paul O’Dwyer, president of the City Council, to emphasize the Dutch contributions to the city’s history and downplay the British legacy. The choice of date was controversial at the time; an aide to First Deputy Mayor James A. Cavanagh concluded: “In researching the validity of this proposal, I find no basis for 1625 as the founding date.” An aide to then-Mayor Abe Beame suggested that 1624 would be a more accurate date, as that was when the city was actually chartered as a legal Dutch entity. Author Edwin G. Burrows had another perspective on the debate, saying “You have to wonder if they didn’t pick either 1626 or 1625 just to beat Boston, settled in 1630.” Nonetheless, the mayor signed O’Dwyer’s legislation.
Section 2-103 of the New York City Administrative Code (“Official city flag”) establishes the design as follows:
A flag combining the colors orange, white and blue arranged in perpendicular bars of equal dimensions (the blue being nearest to the flagstaff) with the standard design of the seal of the city in blue upon the middle, or white bar, omitting the legend Sigillum Civitatis Novi Eboraci, which colors shall be the same as those of the flag of the United Netherlands in use in the year sixteen hundred twenty-five.
The blue, white and orange refer to the colors of the historical Dutch flag. Orange is the color the Dutch adopted after their leader William I, Prince of Orange. The Committee’s report stated that “the order of arrangement follows the practice found in the French, Belgian and other tri-colors, of placing the darkest bar next to the staff.”