What is it about flags? Why have fancy rectangles of cloth become important as symbols of all sorts of things?
World Almanac contains four pages of little images of flags of the nations of the world. There are 196 of them!
I got thinking about flags back on June 22, when a NASCAR (as in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) race was scheduled at the Talladaga Superspeedway in Alabama.
The 5,000 folks who wanted to watch the race drove along Talladaga Boulevard past crowds of people waving the Confederate flag.
NASCAR no longer permits that Southern flag from the Civil War inside its race tracks.
I admit to some prejudice against those rosy-necked descendants of rebels. My great-grandfather came back from the Civil War with a bad leg, and his two brothers didn’t come back at all.
I thought that had settled the matter. And a fellow who was selling Confederate flags outside the track that day last week told an Associated Press reporter, “I don’t think anybody really connects it to any kind of racism or anything. It’s just a Southern thing.”
Some sources say that the world’s first flag as a country’s insignia was created by Duke Leopold V of Austria at the Siege of Acre, when he waved his bloody white coat after a nasty battle. He was no Betsy Ross.
This was at the Siege of Acre in 1189, not the Siege of Acre in 1104 or the Siege of Acre in 1291. Acre is currently a city in northern Israel, and not recently besieged.
Flags made of cloth were invented in India and China around that time, I find by consulting vaguely conflicting sources. Flags weren’t always rectangular, and Indian flags often had such attachments as a yak’s tail.
Europeans began using flags in the Middle Ages because they were more visible than insignia painted on combatant’s shields. European cities and states then began using them. Flags became good identifiers of sailing ships, also.
I wonder if any other nation has a birthplace of its flag as a tourist location like our Betsy Ross House. (She made the first American flag, if you haven’t heard.)
Betsy Ross was one of 17 children of Samuel Griscom. She was a Quaker who eloped with John Ross, an Episcopalian, and they set up an upholstery business.
John was guarding munitions on the waterfront during the Revolution, and got blown up. Betsy married Joseph Ashburn, a seaman who was captured by the British and died in prison. A fellow prisoner, John Claypoole, came to tell Betsy about Joseph’s death, and became husband number three.
I once rode through the city on a busload of Italian tourists. They viewed politely as such sites as the cathedral and Independence Hall were pointed out. But when we pulled into Arch Street, before the guide had a chance to announce it, they all began shouting, “Ey! Batesey Rowse! Batesey Rowse!”
Back in the '60s, I enjoyed visiting with Vexil D. Weisgerber, then curator of Betsy’s house. He was born there. His name was Vexil Domus Weisgerber; that’s Latin for “home of the flag.”
I haven’t been to Betsy’s for a long while, but I hear that the leader there now is Amy Needle. What could be more appropriate?
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.
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