A brief history of flags and why we use them

Flags are, quite literally, a world standard. Your country, state/providence, county, city, school, company you work for, religion, and social clubs all most likely have flags. And that’s just scratching the surface! So how did flags become so prominent?

Vexillum of the Roman Empire.

The direct ancestors of flags all fit into a broad category called vexilliods, which is anything that is flag-like. The earliest vexilloids were long metal or wooden poles with carvings or figures on top. Their most prevalent use was in battle where they represented armies and divisions with in them. In order to increase visibility in battle, soldiers eventually began attaching square pieces of fabric or materials such as metal with unique markings at the top of the poles, just below the carved figures. These were called vexillums, which mean €œlittle sail€ in Latin. The most prominent users of vexillums were the Romans and Persians during the first century B.C. However, examples of vexillums stretch as far back as 1,000 B.C. in Egypt and 3,000 B.C in the Iran.

Heraldic flag of Sir Henry de Stafford.
The next evolution in flags came around the 11th and 12th centuries; again to solve a familiar problem in battle. Knights often had their coat of arms or other identifying marks painted on their shields, known as heraldic devices. While shields were easy to see up close, it was often hard to identify knights at a distance or mid-battle. Flags were, again, the go-to solution. These flags started to look a lot more like the flags we know today; often attached to a pole at the width of the flag, free to fly in the wind.

Early naval ensign of Great Britain.
By the 15th century, identifying armies and their regiments with flags became a widespread tradition that is still in use today. However, the use of a flag as a national symbol owes its roots to sailing ships. Many boats (and even some captains) had their own flags, making it hard to tell if a ship was a friend or foe unless you were familiar with their flag. European naval powers began developing early versions of national flags in the early 17th century to solve this problem and to help create more unified fleets. Flags also became a useful communication tool at sea during this time. The set of signals they used back then eventually evolved into the international maritime signal flag system that is in use today.

It would take almost two centuries before flags started being used outside of militaries. The rise of nationalism birthed a need for national symbols in the late 18th century. Since flags were already used as national symbols at sea, they were quickly adopted by civilians. By the 19th century, it became a tradition for every government to adopt a flag.

Today, almost everything has a flag; from cities, states, and countries, to clubs, companies, and monarchs. Since the dawn of civilizations, humans have always had a drive to identify ourselves and where we come from. Flags have traveled with us into battle, into wild frontiers, and even to the moon. I can almost guarantee where ever humans go next, we will have a flag with us.

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