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Why Do Countries Have Flags in the First Place?

A piece of fabric can go a long way into developing a sense of meaning over something else. Long before they represented countries, flags stood for other purposes of human life, such as religion, warfare, messaging, and decoration. Beginning with the Ancient Romans, vexillology, or the study of flags has continued throughout our history.

Although they can signal a variety of things, flags are perceived as very special objects that insult their homelands if destroyed or vandalized in a disrespectful manner. Many of us note that white flags are associated with surrender. But there is so much more! Feeling some confusion? Why are flags so important in the first place? 

Read more below to find out.

 

History

The earliest dates of flags being used go all the way back to ancient Roman times, where vexilloids (a staff with an emblem) were used to represent military affiliations. This carried over into the Middle Ages for a similar purpose, where organizations such as the Knights, Samurai, and Generals under the Imperial Army would notify their respective allegiances with the help of a lance or flagpole

These militaries eventually became more centralized, and specific sections of them garnered flags of their own over the course of time. These tangible objects became capturable artifacts for the battlefield that were protected by their people until World War I, when flag bearers no longer were carried in combat due to how unsafe it was. Flags were also used by Christopher Columbus on his trek across the Atlantic Ocean towards the Americas in the late 15th century—a trend-setting moment for flag use. 

Nowadays, flags are seen as unifying objects that every country has to remind their people that time will go on through unexpected distress. As most things across history come to fruition based on sheer tradition, national flags are no exception to this.

Here’s a look at some of the most famous flags in the world today, how they came to be, and what they respectively stand for.

 

American Flag

One of the most iconic flags ever created in the history of mankind, this beautifully designed flag illustrates the historical background of the United States. The United States flag has been altered some 28 times throughout its country’s history, but it has kept the same design since July 4th, 1960.

 

History of the American Flag

It has been widely noted by historians that the Grand Union flag was the first installment of American flags. This flag, upon first glance, appears very similar to the one we have today, with a substituted Great Britain flag replacing the 50 stars we know today in the canton. The thirteen red and white stripes design on the right-hand portion of the Grand Union remain the same as today, however.

 

The East India Trading Company

The colonies were said to use this flag due in large part to its exact resemblance to the flag of the East India Trading Company—one of the most influential and powerful trading companies of its day (and in the history of mankind). George Washington sought to please their United Kingdom counterparts for the time being leading up to the Revolutionary War, so they mimicked the East India Trading Company flag.

Flag inspiration is common: the flag of the UK was itself inspired by the flags of Ireland and Scotland. 

 

A Revolutionary Flag

Another early installment of the American Flag came from the Sons of Liberty - a rebellious group of colonists formed by Samuel Adams who opposed British rule and would go on to form the Tea Party years later. Their flag was known as “The Rebellious Stripes” and contained nine vertical red and white stripes. The legend goes that this represented the nine colonies that made up the Sons of Liberty. There is a special location known as the Liberty Tree in Boston - the site where “The Rebellious Stripes” was erected. This new flag was known to have been used on two famous occasions at this particular spot in the nation’s young history at the time:

 

  1. July 31, 1769 - the date which Royal Governor Francis Bernard left for England to report the petition colonials had made against him.
  2. November 1773 - when British ships arrived at Boston Harbor after the Tea Act to sell this product to American colonists.

Although there is not full-proof evidence that she created the first stars and stripes American flag design that we know today, a woman named Betsy Ross is said to have been the pioneer behind this work of art.

The thirteen stripes were supposed to represent the colonies but also the rebellious mentality the colonies had towards the British monarchy at the time. Around the year 1777, after the United States had declared their independence from under the Union Jack, the American flag was born. 

 

Flag Acts

Later on, Congress passed the 2nd Flag Act, which declared that a new star and stripe be added for every new state of the growing nation. At the time of the War of 1812, the 15 star, 15 stripe flag was in use became known as the Star-Spangled Banner, when Francis Scott Key viewed the bombardment at Fort McHenry and famously wrote the anthem that we all know today.

Fast-forwarding to 1818, Congress passed the 3rd Flag Act, which brought the design back to the original 13 red and white stripes, but it failed to specify where the stars should be located within the blue background in the canton of the flag. 

 

Symbolism

The American flag is rich with symbolism. Our flag’s colors represent valor and hardiness (red), purity and innocence (white), and justice, perseverance, and vigilance (blue). The thirteen red and white stripes symbolize the colonies that were constructed closer to the birth of our nation and represent a nod to our unity.

More flags colored red, white, and blue include: Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand. 

In Slavic countries, the red, white, and blue we are familiar with can be seen on the flags of: Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, and Croatia. 

 

Importance

The American flag serves as an extremely unifying tool to honor the construction of the United States, even though the country has had its independence for a while now. When the country faces extreme times of hardship and struggle, the flag remains a symbol to unite us all as one.

This piece of fabric represents the idea that our country was founded upon democracy and freedom. America represents the hope democracy offers to not only those in the United States but people all over the world. All in all, the display of a high-quality American-made flag portrays a great sense of pride in everything we work towards.

 

Other Flags Around the World

Aside from the United States, other nations across our planet also have very distinct reasonings behind the structure of their respective flags. If you can notice patterns while reading about these, pay attention to the historical aspect of how the flags came to be.

 

Denmark

The Danish flag Dannebrog boasts the longest-lasting national flag that is still currently used today. Its red background overlapped with a horizontal white cross embellishes their Christian history while also providing insight to the other Nordic countries that have adopted flag styles influenced by Dannebrog.

 

France

Tricolour takes a very historical approach to how the French nation evolved. It has similar colors to the Stars and Stripes but in different shapes that contain varying meanings.

The red and blue colors on Tricolour represent the capital of Paris. These shades also pay tribute to the colors that the French revolutionaries wore while storming the Bastille in 1789 in the hope of democracy. This House of Bourbon is pictured as the central white color on the flag as a reminder to the French people what their country was prior to these events at the end of the 18th century.

 

South Africa

Not as old of a flag, the colorful flag of South Africa was created circa 1990 after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The design was modeled partially around his African National Congress—the black, green, and yellow, whereas similar to the Tricolour, the red, white and blue were added from the old flag of Transvaal.

The unique “Y-shape” was seen as a way of converging the two separate cultures of the past into one unified nation moving forward.

 

Seal of Statehood, Pride of Countries

Overall, flags have significance to each nation due to their ability to unify their people around a distinct artifact that they hold true to themselves. In the case of the United States, the Stars and Stripes was constructed over the longevity of the nation’s growth until they finally settled on the design we know and love. 

All countries turn to their respective flags in times of hardship in order to feel that sense of unity and loyalty to the nation that bore them. In one way or another, every flag has its own story, and there is hidden meaning in all of them.

 

Sources:

 

This is what 24 of the world’s most iconic flags mean | World Economic Forum

History of the American Flag & American Flag Facts | Drexel University Online Education

Flags and Their Importance | UnitedStatesFlags.com

Flag | New World Encyclopedia

“The Rebellious Stripes” of the “Sons of Liberty” | United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico

800 years of Dannebrog | The story of the Danish flag | denmark.dk