On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed an act establishing an official flag for the new nation. The resolution stated: “Resolved, 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.” On August. 3, 1949, President Harry S. Truman officially declared June 14 as Flag Day.
The history of our flag is as fascinating as that of the American Republic itself. It has survived battles, inspired songs and evolved in response to the growth of the country it represents. The following is a collection of interesting facts and customs about the American flag and how it is to be displayed:
Origins of the American Flag
- The origin of the first American flag is unknown. Some historians believe it was designed by New Jersey Congressman Francis Hopkinson and sewn by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross.
- The name Old Glory was given to a large, 10-by-17-foot flag by its owner, William Driver, a sea captain from Massachusetts. Inspiring the common nickname for all American flags, Driver’s flag is said to have survived multiple attempts to deface it during the Civil War. Driver was able to fly the flag over the Tennessee Statehouse once the war ended. The flag is a primary artifact at the National Museum of American History and was last displayed in Tennessee by permission of the Smithsonian at an exhibition in 2006.
- Between 1777 and 1960 Congress passed several acts that changed the shape, design and arrangement of the flag and allowed stars and stripes to be added to reflect the admission of each new state.
- Today the flag consists of 13 horizontal stripes, seven red alternating with six white. The stripes represent the original 13 Colonies and the stars represent the 50 states of the Union.
- The National Museum of American History has undertaken a long-term preservation project of the enormous 1814 garrison flag that survived the 25-hour shelling of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by British troops and inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Often referred to by that name, the flag had become soiled and weakened over time and was removed from the museum in December 1998. This preservation effort began in earnest in June 1999, and continues to this day. The flag is now stored at a 10-degree angle in a special low-oxygen, filtered light chamber and is periodically examined at a microscopic level to detect signs of decay or damage within its individual fibers.
- There are a few locations where the U.S. flag is flown 24 hours a day, by either presidential proclamation or by law:
- Flag House Square, Baltimore, Maryland
- The United States Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima), Arlington, Virginia
- On the Green of the Town of Lexington, Massachusetts
- The White House, Washington, D.C.
- United States customs ports of entry
- Grounds of the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge State Park, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
- After a British bombardment, amateur poet Francis Scott Key was so inspired by the sight of the American flag still flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry that he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sept. 14, 1814. It officially became our national anthem in 1931.
- In 1892, the flag inspired James B. Upham and Francis Bellamy to write The Pledge of Allegiance. It was first published in a magazine called The Youth’s Companion.
On Distant Shores
- The first time the American flag was flown overseas on a foreign fort was in Libya, over Fort Derne, on the shores of Tripoli in 1805.
- In 1909, Robert Peary placed an American flag, sewn by his wife, at the North Pole. He also left pieces of another flag along the way. It is the only time a person has been honored for cutting the flag.
- In 1963, Barry Bishop placed the American flag on top of Mount Everest.
- In July 1969, the American flag was “flown” in space when Neil Armstrong placed it on the moon. Flags were placed on the lunar surface on each of six manned landings during the Apollo program.
Design and Specifications
The basic design of the current flag is specified by 4 U.S.C. § 1; 4 U.S.C. § 2 outlines the addition of new stars to represent new states, with no distinction made for the shape, size, or arrangement of the stars.
Specifications for federal government use adhere to the following values:
- Hoist (height) of the flag: A = 1.0
- Fly (width) of the flag: B = 1.9
- Hoist (height) of the canton (“union”): C = 0.5385 (A × 7/13, spanning seven stripes)
- Fly (width) of the canton: D = 0.76 (B × 2/5, two-fifths of the flag width)
- E = F = 0.0538 (C/10, one-tenth of the height of the canton)
- G = H = 0.0633 (D/12, one twelfth of the width of the canton)
- Diameter of star: K = 0.0616 (L × 4/5, four-fifths of the stripe width, the calculation only gives 0.0616 if L is first rounded to 0.077)
- Width of stripe: L = 0.0769 (A/13, one thirteenth of the flag height)
These specifications are contained in an executive order which, strictly speaking, governs only flags made for or by the U.S. federal government. In practice, most U.S. national flags available for sale to the public have a different width-to-height ratio; common sizes are 2 × 3 ft. or 4 × 6 ft. (flag ratio 1.5), 2.5 × 4 ft. or 5 × 8 ft. (1.6), or 3 × 5 ft. or 6 × 10 ft. (1.667). Even flags flown over the U.S. Capitol for sale to the public through Representatives or Senators are provided in these sizes. Flags that are made to the prescribed 1.9 ratio are often referred to as “G-spec” (for “government specification”) flags.
Why is the American Flag Red, White, and Blue?
The significance behind the colors was not acknowledged when the American flag was adopted in 1777, however, the meaning was later explained by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, when he presented the U.S. Seal of the same colors to Congress in the early 1780s.
While the colors of the American Flag were likely inspired by our mother country’s flag, the Union Jack of England, they were also deliberately chosen to reflect the beliefs and values that our Founding Fathers deemed essential to building our nation.
The color red represents hardiness and valor, as well as courage and readiness to sacrifice. It is also sometimes said to represent the blood shed by those who have fought to protect our freedom and our country.
The color white stands for purity and innocence. Pure, because we are independent from other countries and hold true to our ideals.
The color blue signifies justice for all, as well as vigilance and perseverance. A reminder that we must remain watchful and strong.
According to the U.S. Department of State, the flag’s official colors are “Old Glory Red”, “Old Glory Blue” and basic “White”. The exact colors of the American flag are specified in the 10th edition of the Standard Color Reference of America – a textile color swatch book produced by the Color Association of the United States.
The current design of the U.S. flag is its 27th; the design of the flag has been modified officially 26 times since 1777. The 48-star flag was in effect for 47 years until the 49-star version became official on July 4, 1959. The 50-star flag was ordered by then-president Eisenhower on August 21, 1959, and was adopted in July 1960. It is the longest-used version of the U.S. flag and has been in use for over 62 years.
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Coming July 27, 2022 – The Pledge of Allegiance.