The History of The Use of Flags

Feb 24th, 2016

Historically, flags have been made in all shapes and sizes to represent organizations, armed forces, offices, individuals and communities. Although the shape varied, they are generally oblong in shape and are attached to a halyard or a staff. Over the centuries, flags have been known as standards, colours, pennons, banners, ensigns and other names. Standards were one of the main types of flags. They were larger than other flags and, because of their size, meant to be stationary. When they were introduced, they were generally used to designate the position of an individual in authority, nobles, before a battle, ceremony, tournament, or during a siege. Kings used standards to mark their presence in a location, including their palaces, ships, tents, etc.


The use of flags has been traced back to China between 1046 and 256 BC. Tradition has said that the founder of the Zhou dynasty carried a white flag that was carried before him by a flag bearer. Later, Chinese flags generally had a red bird, blue dragon or white tiger on them and were used to represent the capture of cities by placing them on the walls and were carried on chariots to represent the dynasty. Kings had a royal flag to represent them as rulers and those flags were treated with respect. For example, it was a crime to accost or even touch the flag bearer.


Flags were mainly used during battles as a symbol of the leadership so participants could be identified. During battles, if the flag fell, it resulted in confusion and even defeat. For that reason, the flag was generally carried by a trusted general because the king would not expose his flag and his body in the same location.


Denmark is thought to be the first to have a national flag. That flag had a red background with a white cross on it. It is thought to have originated in 1219. Europe adopted a national flag during the middle ages. The leaders of that time generally adopted the flag of the patron saint that represented their country. For example, during the 13th century, England adopted the Cross of St. George as its national flag.


By the end of the middle ages, flags had been adopted by kings, countries, cities, organizations and guilds. Guild flags were recognizable by the image that was used on the flag – for example, three white candles on a black background was used in Bayeux, France, to represent candle makers.


Today, flags are used for signaling, to display pride and for decoration. Signaling is the use of a flag to signify distress by an individual or a group of people. For example, the most common methods are flying the American flag upside down or waving a white flag as a sign of surrender. The distress signal communicated, in order to be effective, should notify or alert others of distress in progress, and pinpoint the location of the party in distress.


A flag’s usefulness depends on its ability to fly freely. For that reason, preference is generally given to flags that are made of lightweight materials with the pattern and symbol printed on both sides. While those materials were not available in the middle ages, they are available today in the form of nylon and other materials that are not only lightweight, they are durable and the material and colors are long lasting.


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