7 Historic Flags and Where to See Them

As symbols of unity, flags are often part of key historic events—the banner to which people flock, the symbol of a nation’s claim, or the ensign on a ship that must be surrendered. Below are seven amazing historic flags that have survived wars, expeditions, surrenders, and the passing of time:

1. ORIGINAL STAR-SPANGLED BANNER // WASHINGTON D.C.

The original Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814 during the British bombardment can be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It was the sight of this very flag, flying victorious, that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Defense of Fort M’Henry"—the poem that went on to become the national anthem.

It took flag-maker Mary Pickersgill and her assistants seven weeks to hand-stitch the 30 x 42-foot garrison flag as well as another storm flag used for inclement weather. After the victory, the commander of Fort McHenry during the bombardment, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, kept the flag as a family keepsake, occasionally displaying it at patriotic celebrations. By the 1870s the flag and the anthem had become famous across the nation and there were constant requests to put the flag on display; unfortunately, it was becoming more and more dog-eared as small sections were snipped off as gifts, including one of the stars. When New York stockbroker Eben Appleton inherited the family heirloom it had become something of a burden, and as a result he decided in 1907 to first loan, then later gift, the flag to the Smithsonian Institution, with the condition that it would be permanently displayed.

The flag has since been mended and restored a number of times, the last in 1998, when a $7 million project to clean and conserve it took 10 years to complete. After the thorough conservation, the flag was moved into its new home in a special climate-controlled case, where it is kept away from direct sunlight to preserve it for future generations.

2. GIANT TRICOLOR // NORWICH CASTLE, UK

An extremely rare 52 x 27-foot French tricolor flag will go on display at Norwich Castle in England this summer. The flag was flown on the French ship Le Généreux before being captured during the Battle of the Malta Convoy in 1800, and was later presented by famous British war hero Admiral Lord Nelson and his Captain Edward Berry to the city of Norwich. The trophy is thought to be one of the earliest examples of a tricolor flag, which came into use in 1794 as the official national flag of post-revolutionary France. The flag last went on display in 1905 and is undergoing restoration before it goes on display again.

Due to the enormous size of the flag, finding a space to unroll and inspect it wasn't easy. Fortunately, a nearby medieval friary, St Andrew’s Hall, proved large enough for the delicate flag to be laid out for review. Conservators were very excited to discover an old nail that would have been used to pin the flag to the mast, as well as traces of gunpowder and splinters of wood—the flag's battle scars.

3. FLAG RAISED BY ABRAHAM LINCOLN // GETTYSBURG FOUNDATION, PHILADELPHIA

On February 22, 1861, Washington’s birthday, President-elect Abraham Lincoln visited Philadelphia's Independence Hall and raised a flag with 34 stars. The country was then on the brink of civil war, with many southern states seceding from the Union, and as the flag was raised Lincoln talked about the specter of the coming conflict and his hopes that it might be averted (unfortunately, the Civil War broke out just five weeks after his inauguration). Fragments of this famous flag survived and were recently acquired by the Gettysburg Foundation, which will conserve and display them at their home in Pennsylvania.

4. SPANISH FLAG FROM THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR // NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON

The ensign that flew from the Spanish ship San Ildefonso during the famous Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, when British hero Admiral Lord Nelson defeated French Emperor Napoleon, has been safely stored at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London for over 100 years. Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish forces were intent on invading Britain and wiping out her naval might, but during the battle, Nelson outmaneuvered the French and took a decisive victory: Napoleon’s fleet lost 22 ships, while the British lost none.

However, the battle did claim the life of Lord Nelson, who was shot by a French soldier. At Nelson’s funeral, the huge 32 x 47-foot Spanish flag captured from the 74-gun Spanish warship was hung at St. Paul’s Cathedral as a symbol of his victory. In 1907 it was gifted to the Royal Naval Museum (now part of the Maritime Museum). The wool flag still shows signs of the damage it sustained during the battle and is so enormous it is very rarely put out on public display. The last time it was shown was in 2005, 200 years after the fateful battle.

5. CSS SHENANDOAH: LAST LOWERING OF CONFEDERATE FLAG // AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MUSEUM

During the Civil War, Confederate States cruiser the CSS Shenandoah circumnavigated the globe in an attempt to disrupt Union ships. Between October 1864 and August 1865 the ship flew a Confederate Second National flag, which today is housed at the American Civil War Museum in Virginia, while it attacked or sunk some 38 Union merchant vessels. When the ship encountered a British crew sailing out of San Francisco harbor, they discovered that the war had ended some months earlier. The ship then sailed for Liverpool in England, where on November 6, 1865 they surrendered to the British—the last surrender of the Civil War and the last lowering of a Confederate flag.

6. CAPTAIN SCOTT’S SLEDGE FLAG // NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON

The flag that flew from Robert Falcon Scott’s sledge during his 1910-1913 expedition to the South Pole can be seen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. The small flag, machine-stitched in the shape of a medieval standard, is only 1 x 2.7 feet in size and is made from silk sateen. The English cross of St. George is near the hoist and the remaining flag is white over blue, with the crest of the Scott family—a stag’s head—hand-embroidered alongside the motto “Ready Aye Ready.”

When Scott and his team reached the South Pole they found, to their dismay, that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. Sadly, Scott and his four fellow explorers died on the grueling return journey and eight months after their deaths the flag, as well as journals, letters, and pictures of the doomed group, were retrieved from Scott’s tent by a relief party.

7. ENGLISH CIVIL WAR BATTLE STANDARD // NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM, LONDON

An extremely rare flag from the Parliamentarian army that fought in the English Civil War some 350 years ago has recently gone on display at the National Army Museum in London. It is thought that only about six Civil War Parliamentarian flags have survived, and most are in private collections, so it is especially amazing to see such a flag on public display. The 25-square-foot-flag features the cross of St. George in one corner, with five blue stars descending diagonally from the cross on a yellow background.

The flag originally belonged to Parliamentarian commander Sir John Gell and was stored at the ancestral family seat by 11 generations of the same family, alongside some other valuable pieces of Civil War memorabilia. The National Army Museum bought it in 1994.

BONUS: EARLY AMERICAN FLAG // BOUND FOR SPACE

While on a private tour of Glamis Castle in Scotland, NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock spotted a stars and stripes in the attic with just 48 stars. Wheelock realized the flag must be from before the last two states joined the union in 1959, and began taking pictures of it to show his colleagues. The astronaut’s enthusiasm for the old flag came to the notice of Mary, Dowager Countess of Strathmore at Glamis Castle, and she decided to give the flag to Wheelock on the condition that he take it with him when he next goes to space. Wheelock is due to go to space in 2019, and he intends to unfurl the flag on the International Space Station then.

9 Handy Facts About the History of Handwriting

iStock
iStock

While today we can get machines to write for us, for most of human history, writing was a manual endeavor. And there are people who are super passionate about keeping it that way. Some schools are building handwriting requirements into their curriculums, although even the positive research results on the benefits of handwriting over typing aren’t big enough to be super conclusive, and some studies find that cursive, in particular, probably isn’t any better than other methods of putting words to paper. But handwriting has a long and storied tradition in human history, and if only for that reason, it’s not going away anytime soon. In honor of National Handwriting Day, here are some facts about handwriting through the ages, courtesy of Anne Trubek’s recently published book The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting.

1. The world's first writing system was tiny.

Cuneiform, the Sumerian writing system that emerged from Mesopotamia 5000 years ago, was usually etched into clay tablets that were often only a few inches wide. Trubek describes most of the Cuneiform tablets she handled at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York as being only half the size of her iPhone. "Find the second portrait of Lincoln on the penny," a Morgan Library curator told her. "You know, the one of his statue inside the Lincoln Memorial on the obverse? That’s how small the script can be."

2. Medieval writing was regional.


A 12th century Austrian manuscript

After the fall of the Roman Empire, different scripts developed regionally as writers embellished and tweaked existing systems to create their own styles. However, this made books a little hard to read for those not educated in that exact script. All books were written in Latin, but the letters were so different that many scribes couldn’t read writing from other regions.

3. There is an entire filed devoted to reading handwriting.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t decipher other people’s writing easily. "The truth is, most of us already cannot read 99 percent of the historic record," Trubek writes. Paleographers study for years to specialize in particular scripts used in a certain time and certain context, such as medieval book scripts or 18th century legal documents. "In other words," Trubek points out, "even someone whose life work is dedicated to reading cursive cannot read most cursive."

4. Charlemagne was a stickler for handwriting.

The emperor—who was largely illiterate himself—decreed in the 9th century that the same script be used across the Holy Roman Empire, an area that covered most of Western Europe. Called Carolingian minuscule, the uniform script dominated writing in France, Germany, Northern Italy, and England until the 11th century. The Gothic script we associate with medieval times today is a derivation of Carolingian minuscule that popped up during the 12th century. It was later revived in the 15th century, and became the basis for Western typography.

5. Monks were not fans of printing presses.


Reading a first proof-sheet from a printing press in Westminster Abbey, March 1474.
Getty Images

The 15th century monk Johannes Trithemius defended the need for handwriting in his essay "In Praise of Scribes." He claimed that while scripture could last 1000 years, the printed book was "thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely." Printing would make books unsightly and introduce spelling errors, and he predicted that history would judge "the manuscript book superior to the printed book." It had nothing to do with him losing his once-steady job to a machine, no. Indeed, Martin Luther complained of books much like people today complain about the quality of writing online, saying "the multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing."

6. The first font was very script-like.

The first printed books were designed to look a whole lot like the manuscripts of that day, so as not to shock people with newfangled design. Johannes Gutenberg and his hired craftsmen hand-carved an elaborate Gothic script into 290 unique characters for the printing press, allowing the printer to recreate every letter in upper- and lowercase, as well as punctuation, so that the type looked just like what a scribe would make. The first letters of every section were even red, just like manuscript style dictated.

7. Historically, handwriting professionals were quite upwardly mobile.


Circa 1450, a medieval master writing with quill and parchment in his study.
Getty Images

When printing put scribes out of work, they instead became teachers, tutoring and writing books on penmanship. These writing masters became wealthy professionals in a way that they had never been as simple scribes. When businesses and governments began hiring secretaries for the first time, who would take dictation and have a working knowledge of several different scripts, it became an unusually effective way to rise up the class ranks in medieval Europe. The papal secretary was the highest position a commoner could occupy in society.

8. In the 17th century, handwriting was personally revealing.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, different scripts became more than just a sign of where you learned. Specific scripts were established for classes and professions, and even for gender. Wealthy Europeans would use one script for their personal correspondence and another for their legal and business correspondence. A whole host of scripts in England were developed just for court use, making many documents completely illegible to anyone not trained in that specific style of writing.

9. Punctuation was rare until the 18th century.

Before literacy became widespread, spelling varied widely from person to person, and nothing was standardized. It became uniform over time, and the first dictionaries weren’t published until the 17th century. Even then, standardized spelling didn’t become regular for another century. Punctuation was even worse, remaining "largely nonexistent or nonstandardized," according to Trubek, until the 18th century.

This story originally ran in 2016.

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

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