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.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

1. Apple AirPods Pro; $219

Apple

You may not know it by looking at them, but these tiny earbuds by Apple offer HDR sound, 30 hours of noise cancellation, and powerful bass, all through Bluetooth connectivity. These trendy, sleek AirPods will even read your messages and allow you to share your audio with another set of AirPods nearby.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

2. Sony Zx220bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones (Open Box - Like New); $35

Sony

For the listener who likes a traditional over-the-ear headphone, this set by Sony will give you all the same hands-free calling, extended battery power, and Bluetooth connectivity as their tiny earbud counterparts. They have a swivel folding design to make stashing them easy, a built-in microphone for voice commands and calls, and quality 1.18-inch dome drivers for dynamic sound quality.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

3. Sony Xb650bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones; $46

Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

4. Martha Stewart 8-quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker; $65

Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

5. Jashen V18 350w Cordless Vacuum Cleaner; $180

Jashen

If you're obsessive about cleanliness, it's time to lose the vacuum cord and opt for this untethered model from JASHEN. Touting a 4.3-star rating from Amazon, the JASHEN cordless vacuum features a brushless motor with strong suction, noise optimization, and a convenient wall mount for charging and storage.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

6. Evachill Ev-500 Personal Air Conditioner; $65

Evachill

This EvaChill personal air conditioner is an eco-friendly way to cool yourself down in any room of the house. You can set it up at your work desk at home, and in just a few minutes, this portable cooling unit can drop the temperature by 59º. All you need to do is fill the water tank and plug in the USB cord.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

7. Gourmia Gcm7800 Brewdini 5-Cup Cold Brew Coffee Maker; $120

Gourmia

The perfect cup of cold brew can take up to 12 hours to prepare, but this Gourmia Cold Brew Coffee Maker can do the job in just a couple of minutes. It has a strong suction that speeds up brew time while preserving flavor in up to five cups of delicious cold brew at a time.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

8. Townew: The World's First Self-Sealing Trash Can; $90

Townew

Never deal with handling gross garbage again when you have this smart bin helping you in the kitchen. With one touch, the Townew will seal the full bag for easy removal. Once you grab the neatly sealed bag, the Townew will load in a new clean one on its own.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

9. Light Smart Solar Powered Parking Sensor (Two-Pack); $155

FenSens

Parking sensors are amazing, but a lot of cars require a high trim to access them. You can easily upgrade your car—and parking skills—with this solar-powered parking sensor. It will give you audio and visual alerts through your phone for the perfect parking job every time.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

10. Liz: The Smart Self-Cleaning Bottle With UV Sterilization; $46

Noerden

Reusable water bottles are convenient and eco-friendly, but they’re super inconvenient to get inside to clean. This smart water bottle will clean itself with UV sterilization to eliminate 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria. That’s what makes it clean, but the single-tap lid for temperature, hydration reminders, and an anti-leak functionality are what make it smart.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Absentee Ballot vs. Mail-In Ballot: What’s the Difference?

Liliboas/iStock via Getty Images
Liliboas/iStock via Getty Images

Since you mail in an absentee ballot, it seems like mail-in ballot is just a convenient alternative for people who always forget the word absentee. And though the terms are often used interchangeably, there is technically a difference.

Up until the Civil War, American voters were generally required to vote at their local polling stations in person. But when states realized this would prevent hundreds of thousands of soldiers from voting in the 1864 presidential election, they started passing laws to let them send in their ballots instead. As The Washington Post explains, state legislatures have since broadened these laws to include other citizens who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day: people who are traveling, people who have disabilities, people attending college away from home, etc. Because these voters are all physically absent from the polls for one reason or another, their ballots are known as absentee ballots.

Some states require you to meet certain criteria in order to qualify for an absentee ballot, while others don’t ask you to give a reason at all (which is known as “no-excuse absentee voting”). Since this year’s general election is happening during a pandemic, many states have temporarily adopted a no-excuse policy to encourage everyone to vote from home. But even if you don’t need to provide an excuse, you do usually need to request an absentee ballot.

According to Dictionary.com, mail-in ballot is a more general term that can refer to any ballot you send in. It’s often used when talking about all-mail voting, when states send a ballot to every registered voter—no request necessary. Oregon and a few other states actually conduct all elections like this, and several other states have decided to do it for the upcoming presidential election. But even though you don’t have to send in an application requesting a mail-in ballot in these situations, you do still have to be registered to vote.

Because voting processes are mostly left up to the states, there’s quite a bit of variation when it comes to what officials call ballots that you don’t cast in person. You could see the term mail-in ballot—or vote-by-mail ballot, or advanced ballot, or something similar—on an application for an absentee ballot, and you could hear absentee ballot used in a conversation about all-mail voting.

No matter what you call it, you should definitely mail one in for this election—here’s how to do that in your state.