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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.