Thursday, December 6, 2012

Where'd That Come From?

Old masonry lime kiln
Portuguese merchant flag used in India
Red striped version of the above
East India Company flag from 1600 to 1707
Both the East India Company flag (1707 - 1801) and the American "Grand Union" flag

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.
             --  First century philosopher Seneca, quoted in the Semisonics' 1999 song "Closing Time"

Two blocks away from us is a heavily traveled but twisty old road called Limekiln.  I wonder how many people ever think about the meaning of that name?  History and architecture fans will know that lime mortar was used for centuries before the modern portland cement mixture was developed for the building boom of the Industrial Age.  Limestone was burned under hardwood fires, first in a pit and later in brick kilns, fractured and reduced to powder, and mixed with sand and water to bind stone and brick together, and to make plaster and whitewash or used alone as a needed soil amendment.

Like the other local industries in the 18th and 19th centuries such gunsmithing and distilling (there were over 50 whiskey makers in the nearby area!), lime manufacture was established early to meet people's needs by using the resources at hand.  But where were the limekilns -- shouldn't the structure after which the road was named still be somewhere nearby?  There was no historical or informal marker, so I assumed it had been taken apart long ago.

One day, a good while after we moved here, I noticed a beehive-shaped stone structure with an arched opening tucked away in front of a rise, revealed now only by the winter-bare tree and brush branches.  That had to be it, still there after all.  It is not mentioned in the only book of local history (I checked it again) and not pictured in any of the places where historic photos are displayed (the library, or Bob Evans, a half mile up the road, which has many good ones).

I wonder about the forgotten origins of a lot of things.  The name of cheddar cheese intrigued me, just because it's a strange looking word.  It turns out that history is known; the original Celtic word dwr ("sheer" or "brilliant" water) referred to an ancient and surprisingly well-documented spring in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, England.  Okay, one closer to home:  why does the U.S. national flag feature alternating red and white stripes?  I always thought that was an unusual design, but only had the explanation everyone else has, that they represent the thirteen original colonies.  It seemed more likely that it had come from something before -- and what a long, strange journey those stripes made.

The green and white striped banner above was used by the Portuguese merchants and their local associates along the coasts of India in the 17th century (can't find an origin story on it, though), and was later flown in a red and white version, which was adopted by the British East India Company (which existed from 1600 to 1874) with addition of a red St. George's cross in the canton (upper left corner).  After the union of England and Scotland in 1707, the new Union Jack became the canton.  In 1801 a red "St. Patrick's" cross was added to the Jack when Ireland was merged to form the United Kingdom (St. Patrick died of natural causes as a very old man, so he was not martyred on any cross).  But look at the 1707-1801 version, and you will see, exactly, the first United States national flag, called the Continental Colors (it was renamed the Grand Union Flag in an 1872 book, and the new name stuck).  The first flag for all the thirteen colonies, it was made in 1775 by milliner Margaret Manny of Philadelphia and flown by the flagship Alfred as a Navy ensign, before the declaration of independence.  After that declaration the British Jack looked pretty inappropriate and a circle of white stars on a blue canton was decided on.  But why was the flag of the East India Company adopted without change by the restless American colonies as their own?

This is the core of the question -- for the curious -- and no one has an answer.  There is no documentation or explanation extant.  The Company was not allowed to trade directly with the colonies, and if some of their ships ended up in colonial ports, with ensign flying, they weren't there often or long.  American sailors, merchants, and privateers would have seen it many times in the Caribbean, off Africa, or on the Indian Ocean, but of that group of travelers and adventure seekers, only an influential merchant would have consorted with those who made the decision to adopt the flag. 

So, for reasons lost in time, our first flag and most of the current one are based on that of the first global corporation.  Irony alert!  Well, as President Coolidge said, the business of America is business.


  1. Only you can find such obscure artifacts and literate them to the history of the world without a chance of others to challenge their existence or rewrite history. Hope you enjoy "History Detectives".

  2. I LOVE "History Detectives." The more you dig, you find that you can't make up anything crazier than what's happened. Or is said to have happened.