Origins of the Rainbow Flag and the International Co-operative Day

Origins of the Rainbow Flag and the International Co-operative Day

by Alina Pawlowska, Documentation Officer

One of the questions most frequently asked and regarding the history of the
international co-operative movement is the one concerning the origins and
meaning of the International Co-operative Day and the Rainbow Flag.

Over several years various national movements were trying to register the
Rainbow Flag as a trade mark, seeking ICA help in finding out arguments to
prove that the flag is a distinctive symbol, reserved to the co-op
movement. For us, co-operators it is, but in fact, it has never been
registered as the ICA symbol.

After the Basel Congress in 1921, which was the first congress to be held
after an interruption of eight years caused by the Great World War and
facing the new challenges in Europe, the ICA Executive Committee decided to
devote some time to Co-operative Propaganda. The membership had grown
dramatically, thus, the idea was to find a point of rally which would give
an identity to movements scattered from Japan to Canada.

The political map, and most singularly Europe's political map, changed to
such an extension that it become urgent to find some common denominator for
all the different co-operative traditions.  At the same time the
established co-operatives suffered attacks from fascist and communist
parties both of which claimed "property rights" on co-op doctrine and
incidentally on co-op assets.

In these troubled times, the ICA President, G.J.D.C. Goedhart, questioned
himself on the causes which hinder the development of the co-op movement.
He detected three: lack of information among the general public, lack of
knowledge among members and finally lack of ideological commitment among

"What can be done to remedy these evils(..) ? The best means seems to be by
general propaganda which must bring to the minds and hearts of outsiders,
as in a flash, vivid pictures of the Co-perative Movement, the ideals for
which it stands, the real significance of its aims, and how it must
necessary give us a much better human society than that in which we live
(...). (RIC p.79/1922)

And already in 1922 the best support for publicity appeared to him to be a
film. However, since not many societies could have supported such a
financial investment, he suggested children's books, lantern slides and
other means of visual propaganda such as  exhibitions.

"Arrangements should also be made to hold a "Propaganda Day" or "Evening"
in every country, town and village on the same day in order to draw the
attention of the universe to what we are doing, and also to the whole
world". (p.81/1922)

The Executive adopted readily the principle of the Day. At its meeting in
October 1922 in Essen (Germany) it was decided to establish the first
Saturday in July as the "Co-operators' Day"- " corresponding in spirit and
distinction to the "May Day" of Socialism but entirely independent of it"
(p.235/1922). The choice of the date was rather arbitrary : most members
wished to organize outdoor celebrations and July is the best month for that
in Europe.

So that the first International Co-operative Day was celebrated in 1923. It
is not without interest to quote the manifesto the Secretariat sent to
members, since it announces all the major themes which would so frequently
return to haunt in the future: promotion of the co-op movement,
international solidarity, economic efficiency, peace, equality.

"The International Co-operative Alliance, with the consent of the great
majority of the National Co-operative Organizations in its membership, has
decided to establish an Annual Festival of Celebration and Propaganda which
shall have the effect of demonstrating to the whole world the solidarity of
Co-operators and the efficacy of their organisation as a means of economic
emancipation and a guarantee of world peace.

Its great ideals of democracy, of equitable distribution and associated
production of wealth, have made such progress in recent years, and, during
the world crisis, have been forced into such national recognition, that it
is now imperative that its resources should be consolidated, its universal
benefits extended and its international solidarity demonstrated, as much
for the well being of humanity as for the individual benefit of its

A special "Co-operators' Day" is necessary for this purpose. You are,
therefore, called upon to rally to the Standard of "Each for all, all for
each" in a great International Demonstration on the First Saturday in July
next, when the first organised attempt will be made to "broadcast" our
rejoicings, our ideals, our successes, and our determination to pursue them
to their ultimate goal. (...)"(125/1923)

The Review of International Co-operation no. 9/1923 carries an enthusiastic
report on how the Day was celebrated in different countries.

By the beginning of 1923 the idea of the International Co-operative Flag,
"which for some time past has been floating in the Co-operative atmosphere
in a somewhat nebulous form" (p. 29/1923) materialized. "The difficulty of
the moment, however, is a suitable combination of colours, and a not to
commonplace design to express the spirit of International Fraternity. The
seven colours of the spectrum have been suggested for the Flag.(..) Artists
in every country might well bend their minds to the task of devising both
the Flag and Emblem behind which the economic r=E9gime of the new
civilisation will march to its triumphant achievement. Suggestions and
designs will be gladly received, and every national organisation is invited
to give its best aid in discovering emblems worthy of the Alliance and of
truly International effect". (p.29/1923)

The author of the suggestion, an eminent French co-operator, Prof. Charles
Gide has been inspired by the traditions of the fourierist social utopian
movement. The members of phalanst=E8re used to celebrate each 5th April,
=46ourier's birthday, by organising a feast and decorating the premises with
rainbow flags. The spectrum symbolised unity in diversity and the power of
light - and, one can suppose - by semantic gliding - enlightenment and

It is interesting to notice different surfaces of the rainbow symbol. One
refers to a simple meteorologic phenomenon perceptible by everybody under
any climate. Everybody knows what the rainbow is, so there is no need of
explanation. Is automatically recognisable and easy to identify with. The
second belong to popular tradition - there are several stories where
rainbow arch plays a role of the path or gate to a better world or a reward
(see numerous arches of triumph). But the true nature of the rainbow is
known only to  the scientist, who understands the mechanism behind the
marvel - what appears diversified is in fact one and indivisible.

All these shadows of meanings make from rainbow a perfect emblem for a
popular movement. Choosing the form of flag allowed the leaders to assembly
their troops under the same and distinctive symbol.

It is no wonder that after first experimentations with forms and textiles,
the new flag was already decorating the Hall of Co-operative Exhibition at
Ghent in 1924. Enthusiastically received by participants attending the
Congress, it was adopted as an official symbol by the Executive in the
beginning of 1925.