Color Month

The History Behind the Red, White, and Blue Bunting You See Everywhere in the Summer

published Jul 4, 2022
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Fourth of July at the Beach
Credit: Stocksy/Raymond Forbes LLC

There are a few generalizations about Americans that I can’t help but confirm with, “Yup, that’s us.” Every house party and cookout really does supply red solo cups. We really do love our chunky white sneakers. And my goodness, do we ever let our flag fly! American patriotism is constantly on display in the U.S. of A… but during the summertime, we like to crank it up a notch.

In the weeks between Memorial Day and Independence Day (and often all the way through Labor Day), flying the American flag just isn’t enough. Enter: bunting. If you live in the U.S., you’ve likely seen red, white, and blue bunting adorning porches, rooflines, and fences. If you’re wondering where this ultra-patriotic decoration originated, you’re not alone. We at Apartment Therapy love a patriotic color palette and celebrations of all heritages. As it turns out, the history of American flag bunting as we know it begins across the pond, in Britain.

During the 17th century, British naval forces developed the practice of stringing nautical flags along their vessels. Draping the flags could signal to passing ships the allegiance of the vessel. Further systems and flags were designed to represent different messages that could be conveyed to other ships without requiring trackable written or verbal communication. (The U.S. Navy utilizes a similar system, with flags corresponding to the NATO phonetic alphabet, with some messages specific to the Navy and others internationally recognized.)

The practice of hanging bunting soon became ingrained in the daily rituals of the British navy. The “bunting tosser” or more simply “the bunt” described the member of the ship charged with the responsibility of hoisting the flags. That term remains in use today.

Credit: Getty Images/bauhaus1000

Later on, as colonists began settling in what would become the United States, they designed flags to represent their settlements or communities. In the earlier days of colonization, North America lacked the industrialization that already existed in Europe; as such, bunting materials were imported from England. This produced a conflict of interest, given the colonists were seceding from the monarchy and striving to achieve subsequent independence. 

Eventually, after independence was formally declared and the United States was founded, American companies emerged to supply materials. These included the United States Bunting Company, founded in 1865 by General Benjamin F. Butler, a Union Army major general and former governor of Massachusetts. 

Just as cultures have used flags to symbolize loyalty or convey messaging since the dawn of time, United States cities and states began adopting their own local flags and coordinated bunting as well. Unsurprisingly, as the Civil War divided the allegiances of the North and South, bunting and flags reflected those loyalties. 

Following the end of the war, the classic red, white, and blue-striped bunting we recognize today became prevalent. Americans took every opportunity to celebrate the post-war United States by displaying the bunting: at state fairs, Fourth of July gatherings, political rallies — you name it. In addition to serving as spirited patriotic decor, one aspect that helped popularize bunting over time is its simplicity: unlike the American flag, bunting does not adhere to the U.S. Flag Code

Next time you roll up to the neighborhood block party, a community Juneteenth festivity, or a classic summertime cookout, be on the lookout for the familiar bunting that has become synonymous with American celebrations. Now you can share your knowledge of the bunting origin story with your loved ones and reflect on our shared history — and how we can build a more unified, joyous future together.