The Evolution of National Flags

Did you know that the current US flag was designed by a high school student for a class project? (He got a B, though his teacher changed it to an A after Congress accepted it as the national flag!). Did you know that the Libyan flag is green (and nothing but green) or that the precursor to the Philippines flag had a Jolly Roger? Read on ...

1. Flag of the United States: The Stars and Stripes

Supposedly, it was George Washington himself who proclaimed "We take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing Liberty."

Lower Left: Colonial Flag, used chiefly by Colonies of New England before the Revolutionary War. Lower Right: Bunker Hill Flag, used by New England troops at the battle of Bunker Hill. Upper Left: Pine Tree Flag of the Navy, used by the American ships early in the Revolutionary War. Upper Right: Rattlesnake flag, used early in Revolutionary War. Center Left: First National Flag, used in 1776, before the Declaration of Independence. Center Right: The Present "Star Spangled Banner" (Image: History of the US, a high school text book in 1885 [wikipedia])

At the time of the signing of the Declaration Independence, the United States of America had no official national flag. The Grand Union Flag is considered to be the first national flag of the United States, though it didn't have any official status.

In 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution stating that the national flag of the United States has 13 red and white stripes, and 13 white stars in a blue field. But it didn't specify the arrangement of the stars. One popular story is that George Washington asked Betsy Ross to design and sew the flag (Betsy decided to use a 5-pointed star instead of 6 to save time). Though this story is accepted as historical fact by most Americans, historians doubted it as the only evidence was the words of her only surviving grandson.

Since then, a new star is added to the flag when a new state joined the Union (in 1795, 2 stars and 2 stripes were added when Kentucky and Vermont became states, but the number of stripes subsequently reverted back to 13).

When Alaska and Hawaii were being considered for statehood, people sent in more than 1,500 new flag designs to President Eisenhower. One of the designs was submitted by a 17-year-old high school student named Bob Heft, who first created it as a school project. He got a B- for it (for "lack of originality"), though his teacher agreed to change his grade if his design was accepted. When Bob's flag design was chosen, his teacher changed the grade to an A! (Source)

2. The Flag of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a landlocked country in south-central Asia. It is not particularly rich in natural resources, but its geographical location made it a crossroad between the East and the West. Throughout history, Afghanistan has probably seen more wars and conquests than any other piece of land in the world.

A true reflection of its history, the Afghan national flag has had more changes during the 20th century than flags of any other countries in the world.

Phew. Image credit: Wikipedia

3. Flag of the United Kingdom: the Union Jack

Image credit: Guilherme Paula [wikipedia]

The national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the royal banner known as the Union Flag or more popularly the Union Jack. Its current design is the combination of the red Cross of St. George (patron saint of England), the white red Saltire (or X-shaped cross) of St. Patrick of Ireland and the white Saltire of Saint Andrew of Scotland.

Why is it called the Union Jack? Some people say because it was named after King James I of Great Britain (after Jacobus, Latin for James) who introduced the flag; others say that the "jack" refers to the jackstaff, a small pole in the bow of the ship used to fly flags - and since Britain's navy was formidable, the name Union Jack stuck.

If you look closely at the Union Jack, you'll notice that the diagonal red and white stripes aren't symmetrical. Here's the story behind it:

In 1801, an Act of Union which made Ireland a co-equal member of the United Kingdom made it necessary to add a symbol for Ireland to the flag, but without obliterating any of the existing symbols. If the St. Patrick's cross had been centered on the diagonal stripes, then St. Andrew's cross would have been relegated to an inferior position, basically serving only as a border for St. Patrick's. But Scotland was the senior of the two kingdoms, so this was unsatisfactory. The solution was to divide the diagonal stripes diagonally, so that the red St. Patrick's cross would take up only half of each stripe, and so that half devoted to St. Andrew would take the place of honor. Thus, in the two hoist quarters, the white St. Andrew's cross occupies the upper position, and in the two fly quarters, the red St. Patrick's cross occupies the upper position. (Source)

But what happened to Wales? The Flag of Wales, The Red Dragon or Y Ddraig Goch, isn't represented in the Union Jack because Wales was annexed by England in 1282. With the Laws in Wales Act 1535 - 1542, it is legally part of the Kingdom of England and thus represented under the St. George's Cross flag.

4. Flag of Albania

Albania has one of the most kick ass flags around: the two-headed eagle design was derived from a 15th century Albanian warrior named Gjergj Skanderbeg, the Dragon of Albania (who, ironically, had a two-headed eagle as a seal, not a dragon). Skanderbeg, in turn, got the design from an ancient Byzantine heraldry.

The evolution of the flag of Albania is as follows:

5. Flag of Libya

The flag of Libya is ... green. Green, and nothing but green - in fact, it's the only national flag in the world with only one color and no design or insignia. Green is the traditional color of Islam, the state religion of Libya, and also symbolizes Gaddafi's "Green Revolution," where he overthrew the Libyan monarchy in 1969.

6. Flag of the Seychelles

Seychelles is an archipelago nation of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean east of Africa. The country has 3 flags since its independence in 1976 from the British Commonwealth.

In the current flag, the blue band represents the sky and the sea that surrounds the island nation, the yellow band is the sun, the red symbolizes the people, the white band represents social justice and harmony, and the green band depicts the country's land and nature.

7. Flag of the Philippines

The present-day national flag of the Philippines has elements of the flags flown by the Katipunan secret society during the Philippine Revolution. The Pambansang bandila ("National Flag") was first conceptualized by General Emilio Aguinaldo during his exile in Hong Kong in 1897 and hand sewn by Marcela Agoncillo, her daughter Lorenzo and a friend named Josefina Herbosa de Natividad.

Though the Katipunan flags aren't considered national flags (and thus not a direct precursor of the current flag), their varieties and designs deserve a mention (plus what other national flag has a Jolly Roger?)

Some of the Katipunan generals have their own personal flags:

Anyway, here is the evolution of the Philippine national flag:

Actually, the blue color has been changed at least 5 times in the Philippines flag (read more about the blue shade debate here)

Obviously this article is woefully incomplete. There 193 recognized countries (more if you count special entities and territories) in the world, and we've only covered a handful. So if your country isn't listed and you think that its flag deserves a mention, please write about it in the comment section.

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I've always wondered why some flags have an identifiable historical or cultural element (India's spinning wheel or Mexico's cactus and eagle, for example) and so many others are just a boring 3 stripe. Any particular reason for the lack of imagination?
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