flag (symbolic cloth)

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flag, piece of cloth, usually bunting or similar light material, plain, colored, or bearing a device, varying in size and shape, but often oblong or square, used as an ensign, standard, or signal or for display and decorative purposes, and generally attached at one edge to a staff or to a halyard by which it may be hoisted. The part of the flag attached to the staff or halyard is the hoist; the portion from the attached part to the free end is the fly; the top quarter of the flag next to the staff is the canton.

The U.S. Flag

Origin and Design

In the British colonies of North America before the Revolution, each of the 13 colonies had its flag. On Jan. 2, 1776, the first flag of the United States was raised at Cambridge, Mass., by George Washington. Known as the Grand Union flag, it consisted of 13 stripes, alternate red and white, with a blue canton bearing the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. Congress, on June 14, 1777, enacted a resolution "that the Flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation." The story of Betsy Ross and the first flag is now discredited. Official records have not confirmed that she was responsible for the design and making of the first flag, and suggest that Francis Hopkinson may have designed it.

On Jan. 13, 1794, Vermont and Kentucky having been admitted to the Union, Congress added a stripe and a star for each state. Congress in 1818 enacted that the 13 stripes, denoting the 13 original colonies, be restored and a star added to the blue canton for each state after its admission to the Union. All of the states and territories of the United States also have their own flags.

Rules for Display

In 1942 a law was passed by the U.S. Congress establishing specific rules for the display of the U.S. flag by civilians or groups previously not subject to U.S. governmental regulations. The intent of the law was to ensure that the U.S. flag be given a position of honor. In a procession the U.S. flag is carried on the military right of the column; in procession with other flags it is carried in front; with another flag on a wall, both flags with staffs, the U.S. flag is to the right with the U.S. flagstaff in front of the other; with other flags on the same halyard, the U.S. flag is on top, although an exception is made when the church pennant of the services is flown from the same staff; with two or more flags in line, the U.S. flag is at right; with a group of other flags on display where the bottoms of the staffs touch in fanlike fashion, the U.S. flag is displayed in the center. Although the U.S. flag is usually displayed from sunrise to sunset, through law or presidential proclamation it is flown both day and night at the following patriotic sites: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historical Shrine, Md.; Flag House Square, Baltimore; United States Marine Corps (Iwo Jima) Memorial, Va.; and Battle Green, Lexington, Mass.

Signaling and Communication

The International Code flags and pennants enable mariners to communicate regardless of differences of language. In the armies and navies of the various nations of the world, flags are used for signaling. The white flag is used universally for truce; the black in early times was a symbol for piracy; the red symbolizes mutiny or revolution; the yellow is a sign of infectious diseases. Shipping lines have their own flags. Striking a flag signifies surrender, and the flag of a victor is hoisted above that of the vanquished. A flag flown at half-mast is the symbol of mourning. The inverted national ensign is a signal of distress.

Historical Development of Flags

Symbolical standards were used by the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Jews. Biblical references to standards, ensigns, and banners are numerous. Early flags usually had a religious significance. The Dannebrog of Denmark, a red ensign that is swallow-tailed and bears a white cross, is no doubt the oldest flag design still in use. In France the Cape de St. Martin, originally kept in Marmoutier abbey, was borne upon the standards of the early kings, but this was succeeded by the oriflamme, the ancient banner of the abbey of St. Denis. The oriflamme was later replaced by the Bourbon white flag sprinkled with fleurs-de-lis, which in turn was succeeded by the tricolor at the time of the Revolution. William the Conqueror received his banner from the pope, and the ensign of Great Britain, the Union Jack (or Union Flag), is formed by the crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, the national saints, respectively, of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

In medieval times there were numerous flags in use—banners, banderoles, gonfalons, gonfanons, pennons, pennoncells, standards, streamers, and guidons. The banner, usually quadrangular in shape, was a battle flag bearing the arms of the person entitled to carry it. The banderole was smaller in size than the banner. The gonfalon and the gonfanon, also battle flags, were hung from a crosspiece attached to a staff or spear. The pennon was a long triangular flag, generally swallow-tailed, used as a knight bachelor's ensign. The pennoncell was a small pennon used for ceremonial purposes. The standard, used by nobles on ceremonial occasions, was a long, narrow flag, tapering toward the free end and richly decorated. The royal standard of today is derived from the medieval banner; it bears the royal arms and is smaller than the national flag, or ensign. The streamer was a long, narrow flag, tapering toward the fly, and generally carried at the masthead of a vessel. It has been replaced by the present-day pennant (or pendant, as it was earlier called and is still called in the British navy). The guidon was carried by cavalry; today it is used by the U.S. army for practically all units in dress parade and as a distinguishing flag.


See G. Campbell and I. O. Evans, The Book of Flags (5th ed. 1965); M. Talocci, Guide to the Flags of the World (1982).

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