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We headed up our previous NEWS post entitled “A Brief History of Flags” with an image of a red-and-white-striped flag featuring a rattlesnake and the familiar slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me!” While that slogan, and the symbolic use of the rattle snake, may be familiar to some of our regular readers, especially those interested in American flag history, we thought the history behind that particular symbolic representation in a U.S. flag merited a little more explanation. So, once again down the rabbit hole of history …

The first flag to feature the rattlesnake and the famed phrase “Don;’ Tread On Me” is featured at the top of this post. Featuring a coiled rattlesnake and the motto on a field of yellow, this is known as the Gadsden flag. The flag is named for its designer, Charles Gadsden, who was a general and statesman during the American Revolution. While Gadsden conceived his flag in 1775, the first use of the rattlesnake as representative of the early U.S. colonies is generally attributed to writings of Benjamin Franklin appearing in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751. During the French and Indian War a few years later, Franklin would create a now-famous woodcut of a rattlesnake cut into eight pieces (representing the eight American colonies at the time) with the phrase, “Join, or Die.” The woodcut was used to produce the first political cartoon published in American newspapers. Over time, use of the rattlesnake as a symbol of the colonies grew in popularity as the cause of the American revolution grew.

The first military appearance of the rattlesnake with the “Don’t Tread On Me” was on the drums of Marines assigned to accompany the first commissioned Navy vessels in the fall of 1775. The drums were painted below. Then Colonel Gadsden served on the Marine Committee at the Second Continental Congress and was charged with supplying the Marines for their naval mission. He gave Commodore Esek Hopkins, the newly-appointed CIC of the Navy, a flag featuring the coiled rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread On Me Motto” on a field of yellow to serve as the standard of the commander’s flagship. Gadsden would present a copy of the flag to the Congress of South Carolina in Charleston.

Of course the Gadsden flag would eventually be replaced with the Stars and Stripes, but it remains a fashionable and widely-displayed flag today, often denoting an organization’s or individual’s patriotism, concern with civil liberties or displeasure with real or perceived government encroachments.


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Flags, in one form or another, have been in use for more than 4000 years. The earliest flags, or standards, typically consisted of metal or wooden poles topped with carvings such as an eagle or twin lions.

The use of fabric as part of a flag did not become popular until about 2000 years ago as additional ornamentation on the standard. The Vexillum was a flag-like standard born by the ancient Roman Army. Vexillum means “little sail” which is what the standards resembled, with the fabric draped from a horizontal crossbar at the top of the staff, in much the same way that the sails of Roman vessels were attached to their masts.

By medieval times, flags we would recognize today, with the hoist attached to the vertical staff or pole, came into dominant use. (Though even today, we still see the ancient standard construction employed in religious processions and by fraternal and cultural organizations.) Then, as now, flags served two primary purposes, as a symbol or for sending a signal. Symbolically, flags employed particular interplays of color and graphic or heraldic elements to represent a people, tribe, clan, military division, ruler or monarch. With the widespread use of full body armor in the late middle ages, flags were a vital tool for helping knights and soldiers identify friend from foe on the battlefield.

Ships began flying fabric flags to signify their nation of origin in the 1600s. This practice would eventually become codified into law, and it these flags – made of cloth with stitched adornments – that are the true precursors of the national flags with which we are so familiar today. And, while today we expect every country and state to have a representative flag, it wasn’t until the 1800s that this practice became truly widespread.

Today, it would be unheard of for a nation to forgo creating a flag to symbolize the country and its people. The United States established its official flag on June 14, 1777 via the Flag Act passed by the Continental Congress: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” Currently, the American flag the flag consists of thirteen horizontal stripes, seven red alternating with 6 white, representing the original 13 colonies. The 50 white stars on a field of blue symbolize the 50 states of the Union. While there’s some debate, it is commonly noted that the colors of the flag are symbolic as well. Red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white for purity, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice.