Where Do Flags Come From?

Since ancient times, civilizations have carried staffs, crests, and banners to declare their identities. An Object Lesson.

Students pledge allegiance to the American flag at the start of school.  (Jeff Tuttle / Reuters )

In the United States, public school students are compelled to perform a daily ritual: the Pledge of Allegiance. Students commit themselves first “to the flag” itself, and then “to the republic for which it stands.” It is a solemn act. Hand on heart, gaze steadfast, flag given pride of place at the front of the classroom.

In junior high, my neighborhood friend decided he did not want to salute the flag anymore. This act of noncompliance was inspired by punk rock music; a popular band at the time was called Anti-Flag. While punk rock advocated rebellion for its own sake, it did offer specific critiques: the Pledge of Allegiance was considered a form of nationalist indoctrination targeted at American youth. My friend was quickly punished, with the same sort of discipline normally devoted to hallway fistfights; from a disciplinary perspective, disrespecting a six-square-foot patch of polyester was comparable to an act of violence. Later, after September 11, the American flag would become even more omnipresent and sacrosanct.

By the time of my friend’s boycott, I had transferred to a Quaker school, which was staunchly opposed to the saluting of flags. The ostensible justification was that Quakers do not make oaths of any kind, but it was clear that flag waving was not compatible with the Quaker Peace Testimony. In the local Philadelphia area, Betsy Ross—apocryphally credited as the designer of the first American flag—is still regarded as hero, and her home is a historic site. In Quaker school, however, we were taught that Ross had been formally expelled from the Religious Society of Friends in disgrace for her political views. Her non-Quaker husband died serving in the Pennsylvania militia, and she herself joined the renegade Free Quakers, who abandoned the Peace Testimony and supported the armed revolution. In the eyes of my teachers, Ross’s popularly accepted role as the fabricator of the flag flown by the Continental Army made her the poster child of Quakers who betrayed their pacifist principles in time of war.

This perceived connection between militarism and flags is historically founded. In his seminal book Flags Through the Ages and Across the World, Whitney Smith relates flags to “the primordial rag dipped in the blood of a conquered enemy and lifted high on a stick.” Thousands of years before the creation of modern national flags, armies from ancient Egypt, Persia, and Babylonia carried various battle standards, known collectively as vexilloids. Smith, who pioneered the field of vexillology (the study of flags), defines these proto-flags as anything that “functions as a flag, but differs in some respect.” Specifically, they “often consist of a staff with an emblem, such as a carved animal, at the top.” Ancient vexilloids were totemic—connecting spiritual power to earthly power—but they were also practical, providing mobile rallying points for soldiers engaged in combat. Building on this tradition, Roman legions carried lances with metal eagles mounted atop. Their influence on modern national flags can be seen in the design of many flagpoles, which also bear eagles or other symbols. The more livestock-oriented Mongols flew horse and yak-tails as they swept down through Asia.

The production of silk in China facilitated the transition from three-dimensional vexilloids to two-dimensional cloth banners. West along the Silk Road, flags began to come into their own in the Muslim world. The prophet Mohammed flew both black and white banners, and later Islamic dynasties would identify themselves with these and other colors.

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As Barbara Karl explains in a 2014 article in the journal Textile History, the shift of flags from physical religious relics to political symbols was gradual:

The flag of the Prophet Mohammed was the most important flag held by the Ottomans. According to tradition, this had originally been a door curtain belonging to Aisha, Mohammed’s wife. This black fabric, later to become the sanjak i-sherif, was carried by Mohammed’s followers into the early battles and hoisted in front of the troops as a banner.

The actual provenance of Mohammed’s banner, the sanjak i-sherif, is unclear, and at some point his standard came to be associated with the color green, rather than black. As Karl explains, the tradition of Mohammed’s banner inspired the red flags of the Ottomans, which bore religious verses and symbols, graced military tents, and ranged from cotton to silk depending on the owner’s personal rank. Higher ranking banners might even have silver or gold thread woven into them. These banners were valued not only by the Ottomans, but by their enemies: silk Ottoman flags captured as trophies by the Habsburg army in the late 17th century are still held in Austrian museums.

For their part, Europeans developed a complex system of heraldry during the Middle Ages. Armor-clad knights, whose faces were obscured with metal, needed a way to display their identity on the battlefield—thus decorated banners, shields, and helmets. This visual system eventually took on a broader social role, as it indicated the class, rank, land, and hereditary titles held by nobility. Symbolic colors were certainly a part of heraldry, but the visual language was much more intricate. Representational art was not taboo in Europe as in the Muslim world, so heraldic crests, coats of arms, and flags often included detailed imagery in addition to symbols and mottos. But in both Christian and Islamic communities, religious symbology influenced flag design. Many European flags, including the long-serving Danish Dannebrog, came to include some version of the cross.

European ships also displayed heraldic banners and crosses. As the international use of sailing ships increased, vessels began to display flags depicting their country or city of origin, as well as their military or commercial statuses. In the centuries before radio, flags were the only effective way to communicate information across water. Meanwhile, on land, banners and flags were used primarily to display military identity and power. Victories were shown by the seizing of rivals’ flags, and the subsequent flying of one’s own flags. This also explains why surrender to a more powerful force has been symbolized by a plain white flag—the surrender not only of the army and the people, but also of the right to fly its standard.

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The modern national flag—the kind American schoolchildren salute—was an innovation of the Age of Revolution. The relatively simple red, white, and blue flags of the American and French republics were visually and functionally distinct from their predecessors (with the exception of the earlier tricolor of the Dutch Republic). In The World Encyclopedia of Flags, Alfred Znamierowski, a prominent Polish vexillologist and heraldist, writes:

The design of these newly created flags reflected the idea that, with the abolition of monarchy, the heraldic system of identification was also rejected. These colours and designs acquired symbolic meanings and flags began to carry ideological and political messages.

These new flags represented the nation as an umbrella over a collective citizenry, not just the power and right of a ruling family. National flags were now streamlined symbols, easily recognizable and replicable. A sense of identity and a set of values could be invoked with a simple set of colored stripes and stars.

The rise of nationalism and modernity led to industrial and social standardization: railroad track gauges and ammunition calibers, for example. The relative uniformity of national flags—the overwhelming majority of them are now rectangular, and most incorporate some sort of horizontal, vertical, or diagonal stripes or bars—has more to do with industrial modernism than it does with flag design.

As a nationalist technology, flags are incredibly effective. In his book Banal Nationalism, the social psychologist Michael Billig discusses the ideological habits of nations. Key among these habits is the daily saluting of flags, as well as the pervasive display of flags outside public buildings. “Daily, the nation is indicated, or ‘flagged’, in the lives of its citizenry,” Billig writes. “Nationalism, far from being an intermittent mood in established nations, is the endemic condition.” The display and veneration of a national flag is not a symptom or symbol of nationalism, but rather a tool that perpetuates and sustains nationalism.

Or, as Anti-Flag put it, “They use the flag to control us / Brainwash us to be their patriotic slaves.” A 2008 study published in Political Psychology found that when American participants were exposed to a large United States flag, they were more likely to agree with nationalist sentiments, such as “We should do anything necessary to increase the power of our country, even if it means war.” The study’s authors, Markus Kemmelmeier and David G. Winter, conclude that the American flag helps “shape the national attachment of Americans.” Other studies have linked exposure to the American flag to aggression and discrimination.

The power of national flags has been put to use beyond the nation state, as well. Emerging and aspirational nations use flags to reify national status as they struggle out from under the folds of heavier flags. “Each nation,” Billig writes, “is expected to have its own flag and national anthem.” National flags were rallying points for national liberation movements in colonized or occupied countries such as Vietnam and Ukraine years before they were internationally recognized as independent countries. Today, the Palestinian flag (a variation on the 1916 Flag of the Arab Revolt, similar to the flags of many Arab nations) is recognized throughout the world, even if Palestinian statehood is not yet recognized by every country.

In 1916, the United States had not yet entered the unprecedented—and largely nationalism-driven—violence of World War I. On May 30 of that year, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that today, June 14, should be:

… observed as FLAG DAY with special patriotic exercises, at which means shall be taken to give significant expression to our thoughtful love of America, our comprehension of the great mission of liberty and justice to which we have devoted ourselves as a people, our pride in the history and our enthusiasm for the political programme of the nation, our determination to make it greater and purer with each generation …

A year later, Wilson would find neutrality to be untenable, and declare war, “for the rights of nations great and small,” and to make the world “safe for democracy.”

Flag Day—whose date commemorates the shared birthday of the United States’ flag and army—is still observed by displaying flags at individual residences, and with parades and events in communities throughout the country. The more popular holiday of Independence Day follows three weeks later, with its panoply of American flags and flag-themed decorations. Fireworks are ignited, echoing the artillery shots of America’s military victories against the British. Despite these two holidays’ strong association with flag-flying and flag-waving, perhaps it is Memorial Day, a federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May, that boasts the most apt display of flags, a tradition that follows the holiday’s original, Civil War-era practice: laying flags on the graves of young people who died in the name of a nation.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.