It's a banner day for flags

The first flags weren't flags at all - they were tall wooden or metal poles with a special carving on top. The first metal flag "flew" over what is now Iran 3,000 years ago. The first fabric flag was probably silk and made in China.

America's Continental Congress adopted the United States flag 228 years ago today, on June 14, 1777. It had 13 stripes and 13 stars. In 1885, B.J. Cigrand, a teacher in Fredonia, Wis., arranged for his pupils to celebrate "Flag Birthday" on June 14. The idea spread from state to state. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a national Flag Day in 1916. Harry Truman established it as an annual observance in 1949.

In honor of Flag Day, we've put together some questions to test your knowledge about flags. (The answers are on the facing page.)

1. Vexing vexillia (that's Latin for 'flags')

Let's say you fall asleep on an airplane and wake up when you land. You look out the window and see a flag with green, orange, and white vertical stripes. Where are you?

Well, it could be Ireland (green, white, and orange stripes), but it may be Côte d'Ivoire (orange, white, and green). But wait: Are the stripes horizontal? Orange on top, then white and green? Is there a wheel in the middle? You're in India! Can you color in the flags to remove the confusion?

2. Can you spot the American-flag imposter?

While British troops fought under their original Union Flag during the Revolutionary War, American forces fought under a number of different flag designs before settling on the Stars and Stripes. Which of these flags did NOT fly over United States troops in that war?

3. Why flags are so 'cross' in Nordic lands

[Editor's note: The original version characterized Finland as Scandinavian. It is Nordic.]

Can you link the emblems to their countries on the map?

A. All the flags of Nordic countries are based on this emblem that, legend has it, fell from the sky during a battle nearly 800 years ago. It belongs to the smallest Nordic country on the map.

B. First it was ruled by Sweden, then it was part of Russia. It declared its independence in 1917. Natives call their land Suomi; we call it something else.

C. Norway is known for its fjords (narrow ocean inlets with steep cliffs), but this country is famous for Volvos. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly implied that the country in question has fjords.]

D. Queen Margrethe I united Denmark, Sweden, and this country in 1397. When it finally broke free in 1905, it adopted the red, white, and blue 'freedom colors' of the US, French, and British flags. The 1994 winter Olympics were held here. [Editor's note: The original version credited the Kalmar Union of 1397 to the wrong Danish queen.]

4. Put the animals back on their banners

Curious creatures appear on some national flags. Four such flags (minus their creatures) appear at left. The missing animals are at right. Can you match the animals to their flags?

The turtle on the Cayman Islands flag harks back to the 1500s, when Christopher Columbus called these Caribbean islands 'Las Tortugas' ('the turtles' in Spanish) because of their many sea turtles. Today, sea turtles are endangered.

When Aztec nomads came upon an eagle atop a cactus eating a snake, they saw it as the sign promised by an ancient tribal prophecy. They founded their capital city on the site. Today it is Mexico City, Mexico's capital.

Dominica is a small, mountainous island nation in the Caribbean. A significant number of native Carib people, the Kalinago, still live there. Dominica's national bird, the Sisserou parrot, comes from the Dominica coat of arms and represents flight toward higher aspirations.

The quetzal bird on Guatemala's flag symbolizes the independence of this central American nation. Quetzals live in the rain forest and represent freedom and wealth to native Maya people. Brilliant green quetzal feathers were used as money. Today, Guatemala's currency is still called the quetzal.

5. The state flag designed by a kid

It was 1927. John Bell (Benny) Benson was 13 years old and living in an orphanage when he entered a contest to design a state flag. Villages and towns across the territory held contests in elementary schools, and the best designs were sent to the capital. The territorial legislature chose Benny's design, shown here. As a reward, Benny got a gold watch with his flag design engraved on it and $1,000. Later, he would have schools and streets named for him. But it was decades before his flag flew over the new state. What state is it?


(1) Did you color in the flags yet? You may be interested to look at other flag lookalikes and ponder why these countries came up with such similar designs. A site like will let you compare Monaco and Indonesia, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, India and Niger. Compare the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags, too.

(2) C is the imposter. It is the British Red Ensign, contemporary with the American Revolution. Ironically it was the inspiration for what is considered the first flag of the United States, the Grand Union Flag. The Grand Union flag looked just like the Red Ensign, except it had 13 red and white stripes where the red field appears.

The others are:

A. George Washington's flag, which flew over the encampment at Valley Forge, Pa., in the winter of 1777-78. General Washington's personal guard, which consisted of soldiers from each colony, carried these colors. It may have been the inspiration for the Stars and Stripes.

B. The Bunker Hill Flag. The red field was a holdover from the days when the colonies were loyal to Britain. The pine tree in the canton (the upper left corner) represented independent-minded New England. The Massachusetts Militia Men flew this flag during the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.

D. The Guildford Courthouse Flag. Gen. Nathanael Greene's North Carolina militiamen flew this flag in the losing Battle of Guildford Courthouse on March 17, 1781, one of the last engagements of the Revolutionary War. The American forces inflicted heavy casualties on the superior British force led by Lord Cornwallis.

(3) A. Denmark; B. Finland; C. Sweden; D. Norway.

Every elementary school pupil in Denmark knows the legend of how this flag, the 'Dannebrog' ('strength of the Danes') fell from heaven as King Waldemar II and his men fought the Estonians at the battle of Lyndantse in 1219. The Estonians were defeated. Another version of the story is that King Waldemar saw a vision of a white cross against a red sky.

(4) The correct pairings are:

A. Guatemala, with No. 3, quetzal

B. Dominica, with No. 4, Sissouru parrot

C. Cayman Islands, with No. 1, the sea turtle (that's a pineapple behind the turtle).

D. Mexico, with No. 2, the eagle and snake of Aztec legend. The eagle was spotted on an island in what used to be Lake Texcoco. The lake was gradually filled in as the city grew.

(5) Alaska, which became America's 50th state on Jan. 3, 1959. Benny Benson, who was part Aleut and Swedish, became a goodwill ambassador for the state and worked as an airplane mechanic.

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