Postcards of Our Long-Forgotten Blue Ensign

Mike Smith

Postcards of Our Long-Forgotten Blue Ensign

Those of us old enough to remember the excitement throughout the land when our new (maple leaf) flag was officially raised on 15 February 1965, may also remember how difficult it was for Prime Minister Lester “Mike” Pearson to convince parliament, veterans and many other Canadians to let go of our cherished Red Ensign (see Figure 1). After all, even though our official flag at Confederation was the Union Jack, over the years the Red Ensign gradually became the de facto Canadian flag. Our veterans had bravely fought under it in both world wars, and after 1945 it was flown from all federal buildings in Canada and abroad. 

Figure 1 – A circa 1912 postcard of Canada’s Red Ensign by Toronto’s Pugh Mfg. Co. In 1921, the provincial symbols on the flag’s crest were replaced by those of Great Britain and France.

Due to its long history of use, the Red Ensign is still relatively well known. Most Canadians born before 1960 probably remember seeing it hoisted, and it’s still displayed in Royal Canadian Legion halls. As a constant reminder, versions of the Red Ensign with the Manitoba and Ontario crests are flown as the official flags of these two provinces respectively. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I first learned that we also had a Blue Ensign! As an aficionado of our wonderful history, I thought I had a pretty good handle on our heritage symbols until I discovered this amazing “hybrid” on a First World War (1904–1918) postcard (see Figure 2). My first reaction was that the anonymous publisher had screwed up and cloned the Canadian flag from the Blue Ensigns used by Australia, New Zealand. But, as I acquired more and more patriotic postcards in the 1980s and 90s, more and more Canadian Blue Ensigns surfaced.

Figure 2. – This circa 1915 First World War postcard by an anonymous publisher shows Canadian, Australian and New Zealand and Blue Ensigns.

One of the most attractive Blue Ensign postcards that I purchased in the 1980s was published by J. (Joseph) Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks, England (see Figure 3). This little gem was part of a large First World War series mostly drawn by talented artist C. T. Howard. After this and other Blue Ensign finds, I decided to do a little research and learned that the British Admiralty issued a circular in 1866 requiring all colonial warships, and civilian vessels in Colonial government service, to fly a Blue Ensign defaced with the seal or badge of the colony. Note that in heraldic parlance, you “deface” an ensign when a badge, crest or any other symbol is added to the traditionally blank right side. Therefore, in Canada’s case, both our Red and Blue Ensigns were defaced – who knew? 

Figure 3. – A beautiful Canadian Blue Ensign postcard by Britain’s J. Salmon Limited. This card is part of a deluxe First World War Series.

Another thing I learned during my sleuthing was that the Blue Ensign was used as the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) jack (flag flown at the bow of the ship) from 1911 until 1965. I only have one RCN postcard with a Blue Ensign and it’s an artist-drawn card of HMCS Fraser at Havana, Cuba (see Figure 4). This card is part of an attractive warship series by “La Estrella” chocolates of Havana.

Figure4. – HMCS Fraser and the Blue Ensign are shown on this circa 1940 artist-drawn postcard published by a Cuban chocolatier.  

If there was any doubt as to whether or not Canada did indeed have a Blue Ensign at some point, take a look at the postcard shown as Figure 5. Right below the woven silk Blue Ensign it distinctly says “Canadian Flag.” For the record, woven silk postcards originated in Germany in 1898 and shortly thereafter other European countries jumped on the bandwagon. One of the most prolific woven silk postcard makers in England back then was Thomas Stevens. By all accounts, his cards are just as popular today as they were during the postcard’s golden age (1900–1914). In fact, many collectors still refer to Thomas Stevens silks by their original trade name, “Stevengraphs.”

By the way, the scanned image of the Figure 5 postcard was recently sent to me by Ottawa collector Ken Elder. Ken has been a regular contributor to all my postcard articles and handbooks so I’d thought I’d give him a much-deserved plug here.

Figure 5. – This circa 1911 woven silk postcard distinctly labels the Blue Ensign as the “Canadian Flag.”

Finally, although the postcard show season is well underway, don’t forget to attend the various nostalgia and antique shows that have emerged from their summer siesta. Some wonderful antique postcards can be found at these venues as well.

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