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Last modified: 2020-04-05 by rob raeside
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Prior to the early-18th Century, the only foresail generally carried was a square spritsail mounted below the bowsprit (and occasionally one mounted above), however, this was gradually replaced by the much more efficient triangular foresail. The bending on of a triangular sail between foremast and bowsprit meant the this last was no longer clear and could not, therefore, any longer bear a jack-staff and flag when under way.

The privilege of wearing a Union Jack at sea was (and remains) the exclusive right of the Royal Navy, and they weren't about to give it up because of a 'minor' inconvenience like a sail getting in the way. Thus the convention of raising it only whilst at anchor developed.
Christopher Southworth, 4 September 2003

I'm in the process of writing something on the history and status of the U.S. jack, which is why this subject interests me at the moment. In my view, the U.S. jack is not the national flag, but it is a national flag. Its use to cover deceased sailors is one of many pieces of evidence suggesting that in the 19th century it was seen that way. U.S. warships used the jack in all the same ways that Royal Navy warships used their Union Jack, including as an additional mark of nationality in battle and as a covering for the capstan when the captain used it as a lectern for conducting church services.
Joe McMillan, 12 September 2003

Perrin (Page 60) places the general introduction the jack on the bowsprit "a year or two before" the Proclamation of 1634. He also says, however, that Flags had no doubt, been carried on the bowsprit from the time when the time when that spar was first invented", and cites the first known instance of this as being 19th July 1545. The first use of the term "jack" to denote a flag is given on P.61 as 3rd July 1633.
Christopher Southworth, 12 September 2003

I see basically four kinds of (national) jacks:

- canton of ensign (UK, US, Batavian Republic [NL 1795-1806], Norway 1844-1905, Sweden 1844-1905, Revolutionary France 1790-94, Germany in various configurations 1848 to 1919, India, South Africa, ...)

- more or less the same as the ensign or national flag (Canada, modern Scandinavians, modern Germany, modern France, Japan, Australia, India (falls into both categories),,,);

- another "national" design (Spain, Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, USSR, Russia, Poland,);

- a navy-specific design (Pakistan, Mexico, others...)

Joe McMillan, 12 September 2003

I would conditionally agree that the majority of navies fly different designs for national flag. jack and ensign (ir at least for ensign and jack). The USSR was indeed that way, as is the Russian Federation today. In general terms (and other than the previously mentioned) some countries fly the naval ensign at both bow and stern, a couple (Norway and Belgium) fly a square version of the national flag and the remainder follow Royal Navy practice. There will be the odd exception of course, and I'm sure that someone will have great pleasure in pointing it or them out.

Of course, the adoption of the Union as a jack predates its general acceptance as our National Flag, and this (to my mind) gives acceptable weight to the opposite view.
Christopher Southworth, 12 September 2003

The jack has to represent the nationality of the vessel. The ensign has to do likewise, and may also say something about ther status of the vessel (e.g., naval, merchant)

As such, it would not be inappropriate to use the national flag as a Jack, and the same with some form of differencing marks as the ensign (thus allowing for different types of vessel to be identified.

The British (and possibly others before them?) hit upon the logical idea of creating an ensign which used the national flag in canton, with plain colours for the rest of the ensign to indicate the type of vessel.

The problem then occurs: what happens if the national flag is already one with a canton? I suspect that what happened is that the US and similar countries (Liberia, for example) reversed the original process. They Started by noting the similarity between their flag and a British-styled ensign, and extrapolated from that to using the canton from the ensign as a jack.

I could easily envisage that the original idea may have been to change the pattern of the rest of the ensign to follow the pattern further (a US red ensign, for instance), but that this never happened.

This makes more sense when you consider the reverse situation - that the US might have used their national flag as a jack and then used it as the canton of an ensign. Here in New Zealand some organisational flags (such as the police and the fire service) use the NZ flag as a canton, and it looks very messy indeed having a canton as part of a canton! James Dignan, 12 September 2003

In the late nineteenth century the jack was usually either the canton of the ensign or a smaller flag of the same basic design. Since then a number of countries have adopted jacks that perpetuate flags of historical significance that would otherwise be disused. Mexico and Cuba are two such (at the moment the U.S.A. is another). Two in Europe use the quartered shields from the center of the ensigns.
John Ayer, 12 September 2003

I can find no definitive explanation as to origin of the English word “jack” when applied to that flag flown in the bows of a warship, there is however, a rather persuasive theory which I shall repeat here:
“Jack” was a 17th Century (particularly naval) diminutive, and the “jack flag” (looking at some 17th , 18th and 19th Century lists) shows that it was almost (if not exactly) half the size of its accompanying ensign so the proposition seems eminently reasonable. Of course this theory only applies to flags of the English then British Royal Navy, and of course, to the USN, and I wonder if its various names in other languages have an equally interesting history.
Christopher Southworth, 7 March 2020

We know from written evidence that the English Royal Navy began to fly “jacks” from the bowsprit in the 1630s, do we know when the French Navy (with its far more logical name for the flag) began the practice?
Christopher Southworth, 7 March 2020

Unfortunately, no Romantic (his)story in French language. A jack is called "pavillon de beaupré"; "pavillon" as "a flag at sea", and "beaupré", as "bowsprit". French language can sometimes be straightforward.
Ivan Sache, 7 March 2020