Near and far, we're waving the banner for flags

Across time and distance, these colorful emblems fluttering in the breeze are symbols steeped in our history and our cultures

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Since his childhood, Whitney Smith has been smitten with flags — and the stories they tell. Although he was trained as a political scientist, Smith forsook academia in 1970 to devote himself to his Flag Research Center, in Winchester, Massachusetts. Writer Richard Wolkomir travels to Smith's headquarters, just outside Boston, where Smith maintains a collection of thousands of books, pamphlets, documents and some 2,000 flags — the world's richest trove of materials on vexillology. (Smith coined the term himself, deriving his new word from the Latin word for flag, vexillum.)

Smith is also a conduit into the intriguing lore — and cultural complexities — underlying flags, from the banners we see today to the standards of the distant past. From as far back as 5,500 years, predynastic Egyptian pottery features images of what Smith calls "vexilloids" (objects functioning as flags) — in this case, carved elephants held aloft on poles. In the present, we may find any number of banners displayed around our own neighborhoods: flags hung from porches to announce the arrival of a season or offer a gesture of welcome have become commonplace sights.

Just about anywhere we look, we see flags, and as Smith explains, they're more than just pieces of cloth — they're expressions of human history and culture.

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