National flags did not become commonplace until the 18th century, but soon after they evolved into important symbols of group identity. Some flag symbols cross national lines, such as Red Cross flags or international sea warnings. Others convey negative connotations, such as those with the feared pirate skull and crossbones in the 18th century or the Nazi banners and flags with the swastika of the 1930s and 1940s.
The Museum's flag collection spans from the early 19th century to the late 20th century, and examples cover a range of functions and styles. Holdings of Civil War flags are is a potent reminder of some of this country's darkest days. Other flags were carried by American soldiers during later wars - the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II. Some reflect the unity and identification of civilian organizations, such as local fire companies or the Boy Scouts. Flags in imagery round out the exhibition with exquisite embroideries depicting the goddess Liberty, souvenirs from soldiers' time abroad, and even cigarette silks bearing flags of the nations.
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