The Eastern Hellbender, Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian (United States Department of Agriculture | Flickr)
By Elaine S. Povich
New Jersey has a state fruit — the blueberry — but not a state muffin. However, if a young woman there has her way, the blueberry muffin will take its place among the Garden State’s symbols.
In Washington state, there’s a bill, also championed by a young person, to make the Suciasaurus Rex the official state dinosaur. And a similar move in Florida would substitute the scrub-jay for the current official Florida bird, the mockingbird.
Every state has official symbols, some more than others. Texas has the most, with at least 70 official state symbols, ranging from the Texas toad (state amphibian) to the Nymphaea “Texas Dawn” (state waterlily). Other states have far fewer.
Regardless of the number or variety of state symbols, they just keep on coming. Many are under consideration by legislatures in the upcoming sessions.
State symbols trace back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, according to Ryan Prager, website administrator of StateSymbolsUSA.org, which keeps track of state flowers, birds, animals and other symbols. That world fair featured flowers from each state.
“It started with flowers, then birds, then it went to trees,” Prager said in a phone interview. “Each state has one of each of those symbols. From there, it kind of grew. A state realizes that this particular animal, or insect, or food is prevalent in our state. Trends start, and then other states will pick it up.”
Mostly, it’s school kids these days who spearhead the efforts to name the “official” this or that. The symbols are usually things like birds, animals, foods of flowers, but sometimes, they can be a commercial product or something else unique to that state. The official candy of Pennsylvania could become the Hershey’s Kiss — not surprising, since the Hershey chocolate company was founded there and today employs about 9,000 people in the state. The state Senate tabled the bill last session.
There are at least four states considering new or replacement symbols in their upcoming sessions, including the blueberry muffin bill in New Jersey.
New Jersey state Rep. Carol Murphy, a Democrat, started pushing the state muffin proposal before the coronavirus pandemic began. Other things then took priority, but she’s back with a bill again. And she’s encouraged, she said, because a bill to name cranberry the state juice is getting favorable attention already from the legislature, indicating the members think such designations are a good idea. The Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee approved the cranberry counterpart in December.
Murphy says it was Delize Patterson, then 11 years old, who brought the possibility of a state muffin to her attention. Patterson said in a phone interview she was listening to the radio back then and heard a story about state symbols. She asked her mother how those symbols come to be, and her mother replied, “Look it up.” Patterson figured out it was up to the politicians and decided to try her hand at lobbying.
Along with her local chapter of Jack and Jill, a leadership training and service group for youth and their families, she held a statewide tasting contest of several different muffins with Murphy as one of the judges. They chose the blueberry muffin as their target for a bill.
Patterson, now 17, a senior at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, and president of the Jack and Jill chapter, said she’s a little disappointed the effort has taken so long, but views it as a lesson in how to participate in government.
“I have been excited for where we’ve come and excited for where we are going to go,” she said. “It’s mostly a civics lesson and not so much about the actual muffin. It’s an opportunity to teach [kids] about voting and voting rights.”
While these bills and state symbols may be considered frivolous, Murphy said she was intrigued by the idea of teaching civics to kids in an era of disillusionment with government and institutions.
“Somehow, we skipped a generation of civics [lessons],” she said. “It’s so important that we show young kids that we as legislators are not ignoring them.”
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