Let’s look back at the story of our American flag and what it means to us today. Hey, stay with us. This is not boring. It’s pretty fascinating and an easy read to boot.
What we want to recall and celebrate:
- Who designed the American flag? Was it Betsy Ross?
- Why red, white, and blue?
- How many stars and how many stripes?
- What is its name ?
- Rules for display
- Flag etiquette
- The Pledge of Allegiance
- Stories: From Iwo Jima to the moon
We were putting up posts on our website that showed the American flag in a number of images. You’ve seen them (we hope!): on songs and anthems. Gradually, we realized we were not all that familiar with what we were looking at! So we decided to find out what we had forgotten since high school and grade school.
Who inspired and designed the look of our
During the Revolutionary War, there were a number of flags that were held up by various segments of the fledgling military or colonies.
The first “national” banner, although still unofficial, was designated by General George Washington at the beginning of 1776.
We don’t know exactly what it looked like since there seem to have been some variations. But it did have a series of 13 horizontal stripes, at least red and white.
The “canton” (the upper left quarter) in one early iteration, the Grand Union flag, consisted of the Union Jack (the British flag)!
Did Betsy Ross create the first American flag?
Francis Hopkinson designed it
History credits Francis Hopkinson to be the designer. The name may not be prominently remembered, but he was a significant factor in our early history. He designed the Great Seal, paper money and the first coin! And was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
George Washington commissioned it. It is known that Washington and Betsy Ross attended the same church. Being a seamstress, she would be just the sort of person to sew up a banner, after all.
Betsy Ross contributed her ideas and handiwork
There is writing from 1870 from Rachel Fletcher, the daughter of Betsy Ross, that documents some interesting insights from the time. That the noted lady indicated the standard should be a rectangle, 1/3 longer than wide, that the stars should be arranged not scattered, and that the stars themselves should have five points, not six.
It seems likely that Ms Ross had some influence on its final design and actually sewed it.
When did our country start to use it?
The Second Continental Congress resolved, in Philadelphia in 1777, in the Flag Act:
“Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be Thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
- 1777 – the Stars and Stripes, first national flag officially designated by the Continental Congress
- 1795 – resolution to add more stars and stripes when there were new states
- 1818 – resolution to add more stars to equal the number of states, but kept the number of stripes at 13, and add the star on the next July 4
- 1912 – executive order by President Taft to specify the proportions and the areas within
- 1934 – standardized the exact colors
- 1960 – the most recent change, in the number of stars, due to the recognition of the 50th state
The looks of the Stars and Stripes
The colonists took from what was familiar and what they aspired to.
Why these three colors: red, white, and blue?
Well, they are the colors of the Union Jack, the British flag, so they were already very well known to the Colonists, after all!
It’s a good thing that the exact colors became standardized (1934). There are so many possible shades of blue and red. Some, at the extremes of the color spectrum, might even clash!
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What the colors mean
It’s become tradition to accept the meaning of the colors:
- white — purity and innocence
- red — hardiness and valor
- blue — vigilance, perseverance and justice
However, these associations were first given in relation to the Great Seal in 1782, not the flag.
Later they were also attributed to our banner as well.
Stars and stripes: symbols and meaning
In 1977 the House of Representatives wrote further on “Our Flag” , saying that:
“The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.”
Size, shape and dimensions
There is no set absolute size to an individual banner. But what is important to be consistent is the proportion of width to height. It is not quite half as high as it is to its width. To be precise, that ratio is 1 to 1.9 (or 10 to 19).
The canton (the blue with white stars space) is a quarter of the area.
The number of stars and their arrangement has changed
At first, there were 13 each of the stars and the stripes for the original number of states. As the number of states in the Union has increased, so has the number of white stars in the blue field.
The presence of the horizontal stripes has been stable for most of the lifetime of our banner.
There are 7 red ones alternating with six white
In early national history, as more states joined, the number of stripes was increased.
Apparently, that proved unwieldy, so the original 13 were resurrected.
We were amazed to learn that the organization of the stars as they appeared was not fixed for many years: not until 1912!
The last increase in the number of stars, to 50, was on July 4, 1960.
Quick: do you know?
Which state entered the Union as #50?
And which one was #49?
What shall we call this flag?
The national banner has had different names over the years, especially early in its history. It’s fun to recall some of them! Of
Stars and Stripes
Was this the first? Yes, it was the name that Congress officially adopted in 1777.
We forget that this is not only the name of our revered national anthem, that Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814. It is the name of the ensign itself about which the song was written.
There is an old Nashville story of a retired seaman that lies behind this nickname. It dates to about 1831 and belongs to a shipmaster named Captain William Driver. He sailed out to sea from Salem, Massachusetts and unfurled his new flag, a gift from friends.
They say he exclaimed “Old Glory“, and flew it many years. The Captain hid it during the Civil War and so it survived that struggle to be flown again.
The Red White and Blue
Everyone has heard, and has probably used, this informal nickname for our country’s standard. But it’s not official or written about much that way. I guess it’s just pretty obvious.
Re “red, white, and blue”, it certainly has been part
Witness this great set by the Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd:
Rules, regulations and facts
June 14 each year is Flag Day. So designated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Although it is not a national holiday, it starts the week during which everyone is encouraged to fly the U.S. ensign. Sort of
The guidance in the National Flag Code
There’s a lot of information in the National Flag Code. It’s an extensive guideline. The Code was first developed by a number of banner-related groups that adopted its principles on Flag Day in 1923. Though, in itself, it does not carry the weight of law.
In fact, more recent Supreme Court opinions have superseded some of it. S
Its admonishments to not apply the standard as part of wearing apparel or used folded or draped, or printed were once carefully observed. But since the Court dismissed the legal flag respect case, these activities have proliferated and become commonplace. (More on this below.)
How and where to display it
Folks do continue, I think, to observe the guidelines on daytime display, with nighttime showings being illuminated, and using a weatherproof surface during bad weather (that’s only good sense). The extensive descriptions of how to show it in public and along with other flags apply especially when in a government (obviously) or formal setting.
An upside down banner, or dragging on the ground would indicate distress.
Several official places fly 24 hours
You must already realize this list includes the White House and the Washington Monument. We enjoy knowing that it also accounts for the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Maryland. Why is that a special place?
That is the site of the Battle of Baltimore and the origin of our national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. Read more about it in our other articles, too.
Although not an officially designated location, it flies always over the grave of Captain William Driver, the originator of the name “Old Glory”. (See story above.)
Famous flag raisings
Discussing how and when to display reminds us of very special times when the banner has “gone up”.
Among the most famous images in the photographic history of the United States is the raising of the flag during wartime.
The Battle of Iwo Jima was an important event in World War II. The Marine Corps of the United States landed on this Japanese military island in early 1945.
Arriving from the southern shore, they captured Mount Suribachi, a strategic height from which they could advance.
They put up a small flag first
Immediately the soldiers rushed to raise the small standard they had at hand to mark the achievement at the mountain’s crest (which was a volcanic crater).
Planting it in the midst of battle caused a wave of patriotic fervor.
They returned with a large standard
But the flag, because of its size, could not be seen at a distance (by the ships at the shore or the other side of the island). So a little while later, they went up again to replace it with a large one.
This photograph we ‘ve put here may confuse you because it is not the famous one! It is the first flag.
A photographer won accolades for an incredible photo
The raising of the second one was captured in a striking photo that gained worldwide attention, won the Pulitzer Prize for Joe Rosenthal (Associated Press), and has been reproduced endlessly. You can read more on that. But we like the small first one, too.
The Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery was constructed in 1954. It is a striking rendition in a large statue based on the iconic picture of the second banner raising. (This is also a place that always flies the standard.)
The sculptor of the statue, Felix W. de Weldon, was in the U.S. Navy during the war. The photographic image captivated him. So he embarked on developing the sculpture. In the process, he carefully made increasingly complex models over the years before the final casting in bronze.
Man on the moon and his flag
If you were around in 1969, of course much was going on in that decade already. But the singular event of the season had everyone in the United States (and elsewhere) riveted to their TV sets that day in late July.
Really, little can compare to that remarkably good experience. (Unless you were there, actually on site, I guess …) You saw Neil Armstrong stepping out for a little
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he remarked after he exited the lunar module from Apollo 11.
Actually getting the standard to stick on the moon’s surface was a bit difficult, Buzz Aldrin has alleged. The telescoping rod turned out to be a bit unwieldy. Nevertheless, they did get it in there.
A controversial point, you may or may not have considered, is that flag planting has historically been a symbol of a country claiming territory for its own. Could we, or another country claim the moon? Luckily, no. Fortunately, the United Nations has a treaty signed by its members that bans claiming anything in outer space: the Outer Space Treaty of
Our behavior toward the national banner
Definitely controversial today is the verbiage in the Flag Code about how to behave during the playing of the National Anthem. Everyone is familiar with the controversial “taking a knee” by NFL players to protest discrimination.
The code reads: “During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.”
There is a similar account for what one should do during the Pledge of Allegiance. (See below.)
So, today, even amid ongoing controversy and disagreements between society’s groups, we have to say that the Code represents formal etiquette, not
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on flag disrespect in 1989
It used to be a fact that it was a crime to desecrate the American flag, desecration meaning forms of disrespect. But in 1989 – 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech (our First Amendment) was the more important principle. Although coming up in the case specifically in regards to flag burning, the principles have widespread application.
“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” said Justice William Brennan.
In our modern times, a more casual approach is acceptable for how Americans treat their banner.
Today’s facts: It’s ok to be casual about it, put it on stationary, wear it as a bandana or t-shirt.
We no longer consider that disrespectful.
A lot of people do things like that, and, you know, I really get the impression they mostly do it with pride.
What is the Pledge of Allegiance “to the flag” and when do you say it, and why
There were several iterations with changes to the wording, from about 1892 to the final form in the mid twentieth century. The Youth’s Companion, a magazine or periodical, came out with it first in 1892.
Congress recognized it in 1942 and the most recent wording change was in 1954. That added the phrase “under God” and was done during the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
While still almost universally practiced in our educational systems, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students could not be compelled to repeat the Pledge nor to salute the banner.
It is really a pledge to honor each other as our country
And honoring the Pledge is not the same as honoring the flag, or our country, or is it? So, we do get wrapped up in these issues and they ignite controversy and outrage due to varying beliefs in our diverse population. Sometimes we just need to get back to that it is respect for the people of our land that is at the heart of our true intentions.
Respect each person and then the particular way or form – practices- that represent this respect, may be more understandable. In the process, we learn to see where each person is coming from, so to speak.
Q & A
What American flag had a snake on it?
The Gadsden flag
It is an American Revolution era emblem. General Christopher Gadsden designed it in 1775 during the Revolutionary War. Subsequently, the Continental Marines employed it early in that war effort.
(There were a lot of variations in the color and shape of the images on banners during this time. Because of this, you may have seen it in another form.)
Benjamin Franklin popularized a rattlesnake image, writing satirically about retaliation upon the British. It featured in earlier cartoons that he published over the years before the war.
Franklin touted that snake as an appropriate symbol for the rebelling colonies. Including attributes like vigilance, courage, and more.
What will a flag look like if there are 51 states? And what territory could be that state?
We don’t know for sure what it would look like, but it’s probably already been designed. According to this interesting story, it may have already been displayed, on at least one occasion. What, maybe by accident?
The general consensus is that if there is a 51st state, at this point it would most likely be Puerto Rico. Even though they have never had a large enough voter turnout there on the issue to make it a viable pursuit, so far.
Before you go
Thanks for visiting and reading our post. We have renewed our interest and familiarity with our fine
Come visit us again soon!