The first flag was invented in 23,119 BC by a guy named Thunga, and it was made out of the murdered corpse of a fellow from the next tribe over. Conceptually, it was a wonderful start, but in practice smelled very bad and attracted sabre-toothed tigers and giant bears; also, a corpse on a pole cannot be lowered to half-staff in times of mourning, so Thunga went back to the drawing-board, which he had also invented.
The next design was better, as instead of simply being the person who wandered in to the wrong neighborhood, it just symbolized what would happen if a person wandered into the wrong neighborhood. Sadly, Thunga never saw his flag come to fruition, as cotton, weaving, and dyes would not exist for several millennia.
Flags were at first military symbols, and they represented brigades or armies; in a world before radios, a raised and visible standard might be the only way to communicate during a battle, and the flag-bearer’s job was incredibly important. Dropping or–gods forbid–losing the regiment’s standard was a failure punishable by death. (Although you have to wonder who the flag-bearer pissed off. Everyone else gets a sword or a lance, and you get a stick with a sheet tied to it.)
Flags representing nations didn’t become popular until the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly because countries didn’t really exist before then. (Always remember that in the grand scheme of history, the modern nation-state is a relatively new idea.) Right after countries were invented, though, people discovered that they did not know which direction to face when singing the anthem before a sporting event.
The idea caught on. (By “caught on” I mean that it was spread through Colonialism. If you were in a neologizing mood, you could call it Imperiomemetics.) Now you’ve got to have a flag, or your Olympic team captain is just going to be walking around a stadium waving a stick in the air and everyone will drag your country on Twitter.
Some flags are better than others, of course, and they all say more about their countries and cultures than they’re intended to. I’ve made clear my love for Canada’s Maple Leaf. Look at it and smile:
It’s a simple and well-proportioned alternative to the more common horizontally split tricolor; the Maple Leaf is instead cut into vertical fourths, with the white part occupying the middle two quarters. The colors are bold but not aggressive, and it projects a good message: “Hi! We’re Canada! Lots of trees here, eh?”
On the other end of the spectrum is Mozambique. This is their flag:
This flag says “Come to Mozambique. No, wait: never, ever come to Mozambique. It’s just Communism, homework, farming, and machine guns. You should try Canada. They have trees.”
The American flag is, as you may have guessed, the Greatest Flag On Earth® and has a silly amount of history, myth, law, custom, emotion, and bullshit attached to it. Americans have what might be most politely described as a flag fetish. (And please don’t think I’m indicting the yokels here: one of the very first things I did when I moved out of my parents’ house was to buy an American flag; I still have it; it’s hanging from my fridge handle. I have no idea why: it’s almost like I unthinkingly said a prayer to it every morning when I was a child and internalized the belief.)
Americans put flags on everything: our homes and cars and clothing; the percentage of tattoos containing the flag must be around ten percent. I have some foreign readers, and I’d like to assure them that what I am about to say is true: in America, a car dealership’s quality is directly proportional to the size of its flag. You can hear the massive sheets of patriotism whipping and snapping and popping in the wind from miles away.
Unique among national symbols, the America flag is designed to be mutable, and as the country has added states, so has the flag added white stars to the blue field in the upper-left hand quadrant. (America’s flag is in quarters like Canada’s, but in a grid layout instead of side-by-side. Of course, America’s states are kind of a grid, and Canadian provinces sit side-by-side, so maybe I just BLEW YOUR FUCKING MIND, SON.)
The U.S. flag has many names: Old Glory, and the Stars and Stripes, and Francine Pickleworth, or Washington’s Handkerchief (the stars are his boogers, which are boogers of liberty). As all schoolchildren know, the first flag was sewn by Betsy Ross. As all grown-ups know, schoolchildren are dumb as shit; Betsy Ross most likely had nothing to do with the creation of the Red, White, and Blue. If she did, though, she was one of many creators: there were a bunch of competing designs–all pretty similar–in use during the first years of the nation. (Actually, it was not until 1912 and the 48-star flag that Congress mandated a pattern for the stars. The past did not have its shit together.)
As I said: Americans have a flag fetish, and like all fetishes, there are rules. People who are into feet are into a specific kind of foot, if you get me. There’s a ton of rules for the Star-Spangled Banner.
An Incomplete Look At The American Flag Code:
- If there are multiple flags on a pole, the American flag must be the highest.
- If multiple flags are human centipeded together, the American Flag must be in front.
- A flag flown at night must be illuminated, but only by a licensed monk.
- Old Glory may not be dipped to any earthly king.
- She also may not be double-dipped in any earthly pico de gallo, even though pico de gallo is delicious.
- You may not bring the flag into a locker room and whip your fellow naked dudes with it.
- If you are a six-year-old, you may tie an American flag around your neck and pretend to be a superhero, but if you are an adult, then you may not. (Well, you should not. How about that?)
- Displaying the flag upside-down signals that you are in extreme distress, and require assistance.
- Displaying the flag inside-out signals that you are an Omega-level mutant with reality-warping powers.
- An American flag with a fringe around it is the symbol for a maritime court, which means that you don’t have to pay taxes.
- At the end of its years of service when it has become torn and frayed, an American flag must be disposed of properly; preferably, it should be burned, and even more preferably, burned in an Ewok village during a party.
Happy Flag Day, everybody!