The importance of maritime house flags in design history

Flag Waves is a new book showcasing the National Maritime Museum’s collection of flags used at sea. Author Sue Prichard talks about their place in design history

House flags is a term used to describe flags used by merchant shipping companies. Though flags have been used by navies and merchant ships for centuries, house flags were most used during ‘the Golden Age of Sail’, which lasted from around the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century. 

“During this period hundreds of shipping companies were operating across the globe and ports were crowded with ships. An eclectic and brightly coloured flag was a highly visual means of identifying an individual ship among the forest of wooden masts jostling for position,” explains Sue Prichard, senior curator for the Royal Museums Greenwich. “With the introduction of steam ships, companies introduced funnel markings, which were sometimes related to the design of the house flag. Amalgamations and mergers resulted in some shipping companies employing different flags for the various ships of their fleets.” 

Flag Waves: House Flags from the National Maritime Museum by Sue Prichard. All images: Four Corners Books

A new book put together by Prichard and Four Corners Books showcases these house flags for a contemporary audience, and uses the National Maritime Museum’s extensive collection of flags used at sea. “Although it is an internationally significant collection, it is probably little known outside the world of vexillology,” notes Prichard.


Milton Keynes