A Brief History of The Jolly Roger

Posted by // October 22nd, 2012 // Graphic Design No Comments »

Flags have existed for over two thousand years and were originally used on battlefields to assist with military coordination in trying to outmanoeuvre the enemy. Since then they have evolved to provide a number of different functions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a flag as being “a piece of cloth or similar material, typically oblong or square, attachable by one edge to a pole or rope and used as the symbol or emblem of a country or institution or as a decoration during public festivities.”

When sailing ships became the dominant method of transport and discovery from the sixteenth century onwards, flags were a common sight on the seas and ports around the world. It would eventually become a legal requirement for a ship to carry the flag of her nationality. Many of these would become the national flags of modern day countries such as the Union Flag (Union Jack) of the United Kingdom.

Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger is a flag that identifies a ship’s crew as being pirates. It is one of the most recognisable flags that does not represent a nation and is a design that has gain iconic status.

Although there are several versions of the Jolly Roger, the traditional design incorporates a human skull and two bones in an ‘X’ shape in front of a black background. Pirates would originally use a red flag to signify their intentions but over time individual ships would create their own version, including plain black flags. It is thought by some historians that this is where the Jolly Roger originally developed from.

The name itself was first reported in the early eighteenth century and represented any type of black flag used by pirates. Actual skull and crossbones flags were reported over one hundred years earlier.

St Pauli flag

Source: Raminsky

In modern times, the Jolly Roger has been used by many subcultures and groups. One of the most well known examples is that of FC St. Pauli, the German association football club based in Hamburg. Famous for its alternative culture (the stadium is located near the city’s red light district), supporters have adopted a variant of the Jolly Roger as their unofficial emblem.

Variations of the Jolly Roger:

Emanuel Wynn’s flag
Jolly Roger variant

Calico Jack’s flag
Jolly Roger variant

Blackbeard’s flag
Jolly Roger variant

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