The Secret History Behind World Flag Designs

When designing their flags, countries need to decide on a color scheme and style that accurately reflect their nation's history, people, and prosperity. But if you look a little deeper into the stories of some of these flags, you'll discover hidden symbolism and obscure facts that might cause you to do a double take next time you see them waving in the wind.

For instance, the U.S. flag featuring 50 stars, arguably the most famous world flag, was first dreamed up in 1958 by an Ohio high-school student for a class project. Robert Heft figured that Hawaii and Alaska would soon become states, so he borrowed his mother's sewing machine and added two more stars to the existing design. Heft's teacher awarded him a "B-" for his efforts, but assured him that if Congress accepted Heft's submission, he would have his grade changed to an A. Sure enough, in 1959, Heft earned his higher grade, winning him a spot at both the head of the class and in American history.

How did other countries arrive at their modern flags? Some have, in their designs, gone beyond basic colors and patterns and thought more globally. Here's a look at five nations that have designed their banners to be artistically unique and, as a result, full of life and tradition:

Brazil: The Brazilian flag's stars represent the country's 26 states and its Federal District, but the key difference from the U.S.' use of stars is in their design and placement. In fact, they represent actual stars in the sky as they would have been positioned on November 15, 1889 at 8:30pm over Rio de Janeiro -- forever commemorating the moment when several well known constellations (such as the Southern Cross and Scorpio) could be seen. Whenever more states are added -- there were 21 at the flag's inception in 1889 -- more stars are included to expand the showcase of that historic evening's sky. (Nerdy Bonus Fact: The stars are intentionally reversed from the way someone in Rio might see them, as the designers wanted the flag to represent the view of Rio from someone far away in space.)

Australia: In 1901, Australia held an open competition, recruiting citizens to design a new flag in exchange for a cash prize. It drew over 30,000 entries. Submitters were required to consider these criteria: loyalty to the Empire, Federation, history, heraldry, distinctiveness, utility, and cost of manufacture. Many people favored designs that drew inspiration from Britain's flag, complete with the Southern Cross and Commonwealth Star. Ultimately, that's the direction the government went, and five people had to share the prize money, as they turned in similar designs. Everyone submitted red and blue concepts: the nation implemented both versions into its mercantile economy and culture, with red ones used for private vessels and blue ones for government ships.

Turkey: How Turkey wound up with a star and crescent insignia on its flag is anyone's guess -- the origins remain a mystery. The crescent and star are widely understood to be a traditional Islamic symbol, fitting for a country that is almost entirely inhabited by Muslims, but scholars have ruled that belief to be a myth over time. There is, in fact, no evidence of any Islamic significance to the emblems on the flag. What we do know is that today's flag dates back to 1793 under Ottoman Sultan Selim III, who changed the crescent flag from green to red. The five-pointed star aspect originated in 1844. Despite no real understanding of where these symbols developed, other former states of the Ottoman empire have adopted them as well.

Belize: Belize's flag stands out from the rest for its many colors (twelve!) and its depiction of human beings. After becoming its own nation in 1981, Belize wanted to illustrate its autonomy, choosing the red, white, and blue motif that is frequently associated with freedom. Sitting in the middle of the flag is "The Coat of Arms," which consists of a ship (for trading) and tools (for labor). The two woodcutters beside the insignia reinforce the message, wielding an axe and an oar, respectively. Belize is the only country with people featured this prominently in the design of its flag. As a whole, it demonstrates the unity of the nation's people and their struggle to achieve independence.

Israel: The basic design for the Israeli flag was modeled on the Tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, which is traditionally white with blue stripes. When the time came to develop a flag, early Zionists preferred to show off their existing symbol of nationhood, instead of having to design a new concept. As such, the Star of David sits squarely in the middle. The idea for the flag actually predates the state of Israel, and was first introduced in 1885. Because of its tradition, and significance, this design was selected for the official flag of Israel when it became a state in 1948.

This post originally ran on Shutterstock's blog.

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