The History of the American Flag

    June 14, 2011 at 7:00 am

    Today is Flag Day, a holiday where we’re all supposed to appreciate flags. Specifically, we’re supposed to celebrate the American Flag. Everyone knows what the American Flag looks like. Most people know how many stars are on the flag, and some people even know how many there are on the American Flag. But do you know where it came from, how they came up with the original design, and how it evolved to become the American Flag that we’re familiar with today? Here’s a brief history of the American Flag:

    Where the American Flag Came From

    Grand Union Flag
    George Washington’s Grand Union Flag

    The first American Flag was designed by George Washington, who was apparently good at everything. The flag above, often called “The Grand Union Flag”, wasn’t an official flag of the U.S., but it was the first banner that was widely displayed by colonist troops during the Revolutionary War. There’s a lot of debate about where Washington got this design from .Obviously the Union Jack logo in the upper left corner is a depiction of the British Flag, and the 13 stripes represent the original 13 colonies, but what’s with the color scheme? Some argue that Washington blatantly stole this flag design from the British East India Trading Company. Their flag looked exactly the same as Washington’s design, except that it featured anywhere from 9 to 13 stripes and wasn’t allowed to be flown outside of the Indian Ocean.

    The Continental Navy and The Sons of Liberty (who were responsible for The Boston Tea Party) both flew flags of a similar design, so it’s possible that George Washington either borrowed from these two notable colonist organizations of the time, or that he just blatantly stole the design from the British, as a symbolic middle finger to the monarchy.

    Continental Navy Flag

    Sons of Liberty Flag

    This flag was flown during the beginning of the Revolutionary War, but was considered more of an identification tool for ships and soldiers than a patriotic symbol. It wasn’t until 1777, a year later, that the newly-formed Continental Congress decided to put some serious thought into a decent flag design, so they did what Congress does best: they formed a committee, paid themselves graciously, and then talked about it for way too long.

    The First American Flag

    betsy ross american flag
    The first American Flag, supposedly sewn by Betsy Ross

    On June 14, 1777, a committee of the Continental Congress finally came up with The Flag Decree of 1777, which was a consensus regarding the design of the American Flag. They decreed that:

    “the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

    So Young America finally had a flag, and a badass one at that. It was colorful, it had cool designs that looked like alternating bands of blood and purity, and it had a bunch of awesome little stars on it. But the committee did not specify the exact layout, orientation, or type of stars within the blue square. This lack of specificity led to a wide range of flag designs over the next 135 years. The most recognizable early American Flag is the Betsy Ross Flag (pictured above), which features 13 outward facing stars arranged in a circle within the blue field. Betsy claimed that this was the first American Flag ever made, and that she had been commissioned by the Colonial Government to make it. However, there are many other similar claims, and while Betsy’s flag design is definitely one of the oldest on record, there’s no clear evidence that she was ever commissioned by the government to make it. It turns out she may have just been a little bit crazy.


    Why Every Old Flag Looks Different

    In colonial times, flags were not manufactured in mass quantities. Flags were individually sewn and stitched, and because there were no standards as to the layout of the stars on the flag, people would just stitch them however they fit best. Sometimes they would just try to come up with the coolest way to arrange 13 little stars. This innovation led to American Flags with a wide variety of star patterns and designs, all of which were still considered genuine, legitimate American Flags.

    The Cowpens Flag

    The Francis Hopkinson Flag
    Designed by Francis Hopkinson, a Congressman who demanded some wine as payment for creating the design. He was denied payment because he was already getting paid money as a congressman, and he wasn’t the only person who developed the design to begin with. Basically, he was just looking for some free wine.

    One of the ideas behind having the stars on the flag was that, whenever a new colony (later to be states) joined the Union, they could add a star to the flag, thereby displaying their increased strength in numbers to the rest of the world while at the same time making that new colony feel super special and included. However, the lack of standardization meant dozens of re-interpretations of the existing flag every time a new colony was added.

    The 15-Star 15-Stripe Flag
    For a short time, they considered adding a new stripe AND star for each new colony. After doing that twice, somebody was like “Screw this!” and they abandoned the stripe additions, opting only for stars to represent colonies. From then on, the number of stripes on the American Flag was set at 13.

    Notice the complete lack of unification. It’s like Lord of the Flies, but with flags instead of annoying primal children.

    Stop it With The Desecrating, Already!

    In 1897, things had gotten out of hand. People were abusing the flag. It wasn’t that they were burning it, pooping on it, or physically degrading it in any way. The problem was a more distinctively American one: companies were trying to benefit financially by using the American Flag on their products to make them appear more patriotic. In other words, greedy companies were trying to use Old Glory to make money. Disgusted, the U.S. government enacted the State Desecration Statutes, wherein they made it illegal to desecrate the American Flag (and then promptly passed specific guidelines and penalties to the authority of individual states on a case-by-case basis). The initial goal was to keep businesses from doing things like putting their company’s name on an American flag, any representation of the flag, or anything that is even reminiscent of the flag. While the rules are commonly applied to protestors (who are protected by their First Amendment right to free speech), but it was originally enacted to combat companies who were trying to take advantage of the American Flag to make money.

    President Taft Finally Puts His Giant Foot Down

    In 1912, New Mexico and Arizona were officially welcomed into the United States, which meant that it was time to make a new flag with 2 additional stars. Somehow, the country had made it 135 years without placing any level of standardization on those 46 (now 48) stars, and President Taft had finally had enough of it. A glutton for organization (and pretty much everything else), President Taft signed a presidential order (presumably from a giant bathtub that he was wedged in) that finally established specific proportions and star arrangements for the American Flag. He then promptly ate every flag that was within reach and then cited his First Amendment right to do so.


    The Future of the American Flag

    The 51-Star American Flag
    One of several possible renditions of the American Flag with an additional star, should the U.S. ever offer Puerto Rico statehood or conquer another country for its resources

    The American Flag has remained unchanged since 1960, when Hawaii was inducted into the Union. Since then, it’s been the standard 50 stars that everyone is now very accustomed to, and that’s the longest rendition of the American Flag in use. That’s right: we’re having a “claiming other lands as our own” drought right now. Don’t worry, though: it’s not like we’re not getting any more states! The United States Army Institute of Heraldry, who apparently designs our flags now, has created future American Flag renditions that are able to comfortably house up to 56 stars. We won’t know exactly what future renditions of the American Flag will look like until we get there, but don’t worry: the U.S. Government will take care of everything, just like they always do.




    1. highways says:

      Really cool to see the Flag’s evolution. Now if only we could get people to stop wearing it as clothing. It’s wrong.

    2. ZagYee says:

      Well, seeing as the US tends to play World Police, they should jsut put a globe where the stars are.

    3. says:

      Very nicely done, thanks for the education.

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