A History of the American Flag

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Podcast Transcript

The American flag is something that is recognized around the world. 

The flag isn’t just flown on flag poles, but it is on clothing, lapel pins, and bumper stickers, and it is used as a backdrop for all manner of politicians. 

However, there hasn’t been just one American flag. In fact, in the almost 250 years the United States has been in existence, they have switched flags, on average, almost once a decade. 

Learn more about the history of the American flag and its many iterations on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Every country has a flag, but as you will soon see, there is something different about the flag of the United States in that it has a built-in mechanism for being changed, which is the reason why I’m doing an episode on it.

Before we get into that, first a brief history of flags themselves.

The original purpose of flags was to visually identify units on a battlefield. Eventually, the flags were used off the battlefield to identify who ruled a particular building or territory. They would usually fly the coat of arms who whoever the ruler of a particular area was. 

Eventually, the tradition of flags was extended to ships and republics, and by the 18th century, pretty much every country had a flag that served as a means of national identification and unity. The subject of flags generally will be for a future episode. 

When revolution broke out between the thirteen American colonies and the British in 1775, there were no formal structures in place for the colonies to act as a cohesive unit, and there certainly were no formal flags. 

During the Battle of Lexington and Concord or during the siege of Boston, for example, the Colonists would have probably not flown any flags at all. There were no known flags representing the thirteen colonies collectively at this time. 

It wasn’t until the end of 1775 that the first flag to represent the collective colonies appeared. 

On December 3, 1775, American naval officer John Paul Jones raised a flag on the colonial warship Alfred in the port of Philadelphia. The flag was vaguely reminiscent of what we think of as the American flag today. It consisted of thirteen stripes, eight red and seven white. 

In the upper left corner, where today there would be a field of blue with stars, there was instead the British Union Jack. The Union Jack wasn’t rectangular but rather was a square. 

The flag has been called the Alfred Flag, named after the ship it first flew on and also called the “Continental Colours” and the “Grand Union Flag.”

The design almost certainly came from the British Red Ensign flag. The Red Ensign flag was used on British Naval Ships, and it was solid red with the Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner. 

If you sew white stripes onto the Red Ensign, you get the Grand Union Flag.

It isn’t known who designed the Grand Union Flag, but the creation of the first American flag is credited to a woman by the name of Margaret Manny.

Manny was a hat maker in Philadelphia who also made flags for ships on the side. 

If you were assuming that some other woman in Philadelphia created the first flag, I have more on that in a bit. 

The Grand Union Flag wasn’t official. Other flags appeared in the early days of the revolution. 

One popular flag was designed by a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress and a brigadier general in the Continental Army, Christopher Gadsen. 

Gadsen’s flag consisted of an image of a coiled timber rattlesnake on a field of yellow with the phrase “Don’t Tread On Me” below it. 

The rattlesnake had been a symbol of colonial unity since an image of a snake in pieces was printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1754. 

Gadsden gifted the flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins of the colonial navy, who unfurled it on the same ship, the Alfred, on December 20, 1775, two weeks after the Grand Union Flag debuted. 

The Gadsden Flag was more cheeky than the Grand Union Flag and didn’t look as official, but it was used on naval vessels during the war. Commodore Hopkins adopted it as his personal flag. 

It was the Grand Union Flag, however, that quickly caught on in popularity. The Continental Congress flew the flag, and it was reportedly used by George Washington as early as January 2, 1776, in Boston. 

Despite its popularity, the Grand Union Flag was still very unofficial. 

It wasn’t until 1777 that the Continental Congress formally approved an American flag. 

The Flag Act of 1777, passed on June 14, stipulated the design of the flag, but it left a lot to the imagination. In fact, the language of the act was so short that I can read it to you in its entirety:

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.

That’s it. It didn’t stipulate anything about the width-to-height ratio, it didn’t specify how many points the stars were supposed to have, and most importantly, it didn’t say anything about how the stars were supposed to be arranged. 

The big thing was that they removed the Union Jack from the flag….. something which Australia and New Zealand still have yet to do. 

The most popular version of this flag is one with the thirteen stars forming a circle. This flag is often called the Betsy Ross flag because, according to legend, she designed it. The story holds that several members of the Continental Congress approached her to create a flag.

She supposedly not only came up with the design but also used a five-point star instead of a six-point star. 

Betsy Ross was a real person. There is ample evidence that she was a flag maker and was commissioned by several ships to make flags for them.

However, the story of her creating the first American flag was something that was created over 100 years after the fact by some of her descendants. During the American centennial in 1876, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren retold the family story about how Betsy Ross made the first flag for General Washington. 

There is no evidence that Betsy Ross designed the flag or created the first flag. She definitely was a flag maker, but she was nowhere near George Washington at this time. 

In fact, she was one of several women in Philadelphia who made flags, such as the previously mentioned Margaret Manny and another woman named Rebecca Young.

If you have ever seen the painting of Washington Crossing the Deleware, there is a flag behind him which is the Betsy Ross flag. That couldn’t have been present when Washington actually crossed the Delaware River in December 1776 because that design wasn’t used until the Flag Act of 1777.

In addition to the Betsy Ross flag, other hand-sewn flags from this period arranged the stars in any number of ways. Sometimes they were in a square, sometimes a circle, sometimes a circle with one star in the middle.

The first use of the official flag in combat was at the Siege of Fort Stanwix in New York State in August 1777. 

The oldest surviving 13-star flag can be found at the Commonwealth Museum in Massachusetts. It displays the stars in three rows of four, five, and four. 

I should make special note of one flag which flew at the Battle of Bennington in 1777. It was a 13-star flag, but it had the number ‘76’ in the field of blue. Two stars are in the upper corners of the field of blue, with the rest forming an arc around the number ‘76’, which represents the year of the Declaration of Independence.

The 13-star flag, in all its various forms, lasted through the war and through the Constitutional Convention. 

However, soon after, two more states joined the union, Kentucky and Vermont. The thirteen stars and stripes didn’t represent the now fifteen states, so a change had to be made. 

The Flag Act of 1794 changed the flag to accommodate the new states. The resolution was almost as short as the previous act. It read:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, That from and after the first day of May, Anno Domini, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five, the flag of the United States, be fifteen stripes alternate red and white. That the Union be fifteen stars, white in a blue field.

So, now the flag had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. You can probably see where this is going. 

The fifteen-stripe version of the flag was the one that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 and served as the inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner, which is the United States National Anthem.

The physical flag that flew over Fort McHenry still exists. It is a huge flag created by Mary Young Pickersgill, and it is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

More states were added to the Union. By the spring of 1818, there were 20 states, and all of the new ones weren’t reflected in the flag. 

This led to the passage of the Flag Act of 1818, the third and final flag act which defined the American flag. It, too, is also really short. It reads:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress Assembled, That from and after the fourth day of July next, the flag of the United States be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be twenty stars, white in a blue field.

And be it further enacted, That on the admission of every new state into the Union, one star be added to the union of the flag; and that such addition shall take effect of the fourth day of July then next succeeding such admission.

This is the law that is still on the books today. 

The thing to note is that this act still didn’t prescribe anything about the arrangement of the stars, the shape of the stars, or the dimensions of the flag.

What it did do was set a firm schedule for flag updates when new states were admitted.

Throughout the 19th century, there were periods where the flag was changed every year. 1845, 46, 47, and 48 all saw new flags with one more star every year. 

Kansas entered the Union in 1861 to make 34 stars. When the southern states seceded, President Abraham Lincoln refused to remove any stars from the flag.

The number of stars kept increasing, usually by increments of one as new states were added.

However, in 1889, North and South Dakota were admitted to the union. Many flag makers, anticipating the change, made flags with 39 stars assuming that there would just be one state called ‘Dakota.’ When two states were created, it made for 40 states, and all the 39-star flags were rendered useless.

The addition of new states and stars continued until 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico were admitted. With these additions, there were now 48 states, and there were no more territories in contiguous North America. 

There was also the problem of the flag lacking any sort of actual design or anything beyond a vague description. There were over a dozen different variations of the flag in use at this time. 

On June 24, 1912, President William Taft issued an executive order which, for the first time, specified the dimensions of the flag as well as the layout of the stars. There were to be six horizontal rows of eight stars each, with a single point of each star to be upward. 

The 48-star flag was the longest used in American history up until that point. It lasted from 1912 until 1959, with Alaska being granted statehood. 

The 49-star flag only lasted a single year because Hawaii was admitted to the Union in August of 1959. As the Flag Act of 1818 stipulates that the flag only changes on July 4th after a state is admitted, the 50-star flag became official on July 4th, 1960.

A contest determined the layout of the 50-star flag. The winner of the contest was a 17-year-old high school student from Lancaster, Ohio by the name of Bob Heft. His design was selected from more than 1,500 submissions.

According to legend, he created the layout as a class project and received a B-. However, when it was selected as the official flag, his grade was changed to an A.

The 50-star version of the flag became the longest-used version, surpassing the 48-star version in 2007.

Subsequent executive orders and additions to the civil code have specified the exact shape, layout, and even RGB color values of the flag, so there is no longer any variation.

However, what most people don’t know is that all of the 27 previous versions of the American flag, with various numbers of stars, are still valid. 

The 50-star version of the flag is the ‘official’ one, which flies on all government buildings and is in almost universal use. However, the creation of newer flags never invalidated any older flags. 

So technically, and I am really splitting hairs here, the United States has 27 different flags. 

The story of the flag of the United States might not be done. People are already thinking of designs for a 51-star flag. As 51 is 17 times 3, the current thinking is six rows alternating nine, eight, nine, eight, nine, eight.

Some enthusiasts have even developed algorithms that could handle all possible flags up to 100 stars if any states like Texas or California decide to split up in the future. 

Every country has a flag, but the United States is unique in that it has a built-in mechanism to change the flag every time the country changes.