The United States Flag – History & Facts

Growth of the National Flag, 1885.

Growth of the National Flag, 1885.

The flag of the United States of America consists of 13 equal horizontal stripes of red and white, with a blue rectangle in the upper left-hand corner with 50 white stars that represent the 50 states of the United States. The 13 stripes represent the 13 British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain and became the nation’s first states. Nicknames for the flag include the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, and the Star-Spangled Banner.

Before the official American Revolution broke out in 1775, the rebellion against England did not start as a movement for independence but was a movement to gain seats in Parliament. Over the years, the conflict evolved from protests to a full-blown revolution into a move for independence. The colonists didn’t unite under a single flag during these early days. Instead, they fought under various unit or regimental flags which displayed different designs and words such as “Don’t Tread on Me,” “An Appeal to Heaven,” and “Liberty or Death.”

Grand Union Flag

Grand Union Flag

In June 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and created a united colonial fighting force known as the Continental Army. Soon after, the “Grand Union Flag,” also known as the “Continental Colors,” the “Congress Flag,” the “Cambridge Flag,” and the “First Navy Ensign” was developed, which is considered to be the first national flag of the United States of America. This flag displays 13 alternating red and white stripes, representing the Thirteen Colonies with a square in the upper left corner that features the flag of the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Continental Army, the Continental Navy, and a small contingent of Continental Marines initially utilized the flag. This flag was a compromise between those who wanted total independence and those who wanted to see some accommodation with the crown. The Continental military used this flag until early 1777.

Birth of Old Glory, Percy Moran, 1917,

Birth of Old Glory, Percy Moran, 1917.

In the meantime, on July 4, 1776, Congress declared its independence from Great Britain, and General George Washington realized that a flag that did not resemble the enemy’s was needed. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution establishing an official flag for the new nation stating that “the flag of the United States be 13 stripes, alternate red and white” and that “the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Though history books have long told generations that Betsy Ross made the first American flag in 1776 after being asked to do so by George Washington, there is little factual evidence supporting the claim. What is known is that Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from the state of New Jersey, submitted a bill to congress stating: “Ror designing the flag, you owe me two casks of ale.”

In 1870, more than 100 years later, Betsy’s grandson, while addressing a Historical Society in Philadelphia, said that his grandmother told him that she met with George Washington and others and designed the flag. It is possible that she played a role in making the first flag as she was an upholsterer who made flags for the Pennsylvania Navy. The mystery remains without any documentation — no drawing or written description of the flag. However, that first flag is often called “The Betsy Ross” flag.

Star Spangled Banner Flag

Star-Spangled Banner Flag

After the Revolutionary War ended, two new states were added to the Union in 1792 — Vermont and Kentucky. At that time, Congress passed a second flag act stating that one stripe and one star would be added to the flag for each new state. This new 15-star and 15-stripe flag became known as The Star-Spangled Banner because while flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write our national anthem. However, it didn’t officially become our national anthem until 1931.

After the war, more states joined the Union, and the flag design began to get crowded. This prompted Congress to pass the Third Flag Act in 1818, which stated that the stripe design would return to the original configuration of 13 alternating stripes of red on white and that one star would be added for each new state.

Though the flag acts were explicit about what would appear on the flag and the colors to be used, they never specified how the stars should be arranged, the number of points each star should have, or where the blue field should be placed. Because of this lack of clarity, several oddly proportioned and interesting flags were made throughout the years.

Great Star Flag, 1837

Great Star Flag, 1837

Wagon Wheel Flag, 1865

Wagon Wheel Flag, 1865

Volunteers in defense of the government against usurpation by James Queen, 1861

Volunteers in defense of the government against usurpation by James Queen, 1861

It wasn’t until the Civil War erupted that individuals began to fly the U.S. Flag. Before this time, individuals couldn’t simply buy a flag in a store, as sailmakers or upholsterers made most specifically for military and government use. However, during the Civil War, the flag became a popular symbol of the north, and manufacturers responded by making them more available.

In 1892, Francis Bellamy wrote The Pledge of Allegiance. It was first published in a magazine called The Youth’s Companion.

In 1912, President William Taft signed an executive order that, for the first time, clarified what the flag should look like, including the proportions of the flag and the arrangement of the stars. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation officially establishing a nationwide observance of Flag Day on June 14, the anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777. Years later, in 1949, President Harry Truman signed legislation designating National Flag Day on June 14 of each year. Today, citizens are encouraged to display the U.S. flag outside their homes and businesses.

The flag has been an important part of United States history since the beginning. For nearly two and half centuries, the flag has inspired holidays, songs, poems, books, and artwork. It has been used to display our nationalism and represents the freedom, democracy, justice, and true meaning of being an American. Known as a worldwide symbol today, the history of our flag is as fascinating as that of the American Republic itself and, of course, honors the everlasting memory of those who have sacrificed their lives defending these intrinsic principles of the United States of America.

On June 22, 1942, Congress passed a joint resolution encompassing what has become known as the U.S. Flag Code. The code’s objective is that the flag and its likeness should be treated with respect, and its image should not be cheapened or tarnished by improper use. The Flag Code does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance, nor does it include any enforcement provisions; instead, it functions simply as a guide for voluntary civilian compliance.

Flag Etiquette, Rules & Guidelines:
U.S. Marine sergeants salute the flag in Times Square, New York by Carol Highsmith.

U.S. Marine sergeants salute the flag in Times Square, New York, by Carol Highsmith.

Members of the armed services and veterans are asked to stand at attention and salute when their flag is passing in a parade or being hoisted or lowered; civilians should place their right hand over their hearts.

The flag should only be displayed from sunrise to sunset unless, if also displayed at night, it is illuminated.

The flag should be displayed at every public institution, including schools when open, and in or near every polling place on election days.

The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or people.

Flags of the Union by George Franklin Cram, 1901.

Flags of the Union by George Franklin Cram, 1901. Click for 8.5 x 11 printing.

It should not be displayed upside down except as a signal of extreme distress or danger.

The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally but always aloft and free.

The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery, and its image should not be printed on paper napkins or boxes.

The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose.

The flag should be displayed, used, or stored safely to prevent it from being easily torn, soiled, or damaged.

When the flag is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem, it should be destroyed in a dignified and ceremonious fashion, preferably by burning.

Flag Facts:

The name Old Glory was given to a large, 10-by-17-foot flag by its owner, William Driver, a sea captain from Massachusetts. The flag survived multiple attempts to deface it during the Civil War.

The flag’s colors are symbolic: red symbolizes hardiness and valor, white symbolizes purity and innocence, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

The flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” remains and is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In 2011, a snippet of that flag sold at auction for $38,000.

There are a few locations where the U.S. flag is flown 24 hours a day, by either presidential proclamation or by law:

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Baltimore, Maryland

– Flag House Square, Baltimore, Maryland

– 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

There have been 27 official versions of the flag over the years.

Indian Wampum

Although Wampum has often been portrayed as a form of Native American decoration, it played an integral role in colonial diplomacy as it signified the importance or the authority of the message associated with it. Click for 8.5 x 11 printing.

The first flag was commissioned with a payment of “three strings of wampum” by Thomas Green, an American Indian. In 1777, when Congress was still deciding on the exact look of its flag, Green wanted the protection of an official flag while traveling through treacherous territory to Philadelphia. Asking for help from Congress, he offered a payment of three strings of wampum—a traditional shell bead of the Eastern Woodlands tribes of American Indians. Within ten days, a resolution was passed, finalizing the flag as a creation with 13 stars and 13 stripes on June 14, 1777.

Pennsylvania is the only state that observes Flag Day as a legal state holiday.

Our national flag has been placed on several distant shores:

In 1805, the American flag was flown overseas for the first time at a foreign fort in Libya on the shores of Tripoli.

In 1909, Robert Peary placed an American flag, sewn by his wife, at the North Pole.

In 1963, Barry Bishop placed the American flag on top of Mount Everest.

In July 1969, the American flag was “flown” into space when Neil Armstrong placed it on the Moon.

The 50-star pattern used today was created by a 17-year-old high school student, Robert G. Heft, as part of a class project. Robert got a B- on his project.

U.S. Flag on the Moon by NASA.

U.S. Flag on the Moon by NASA.

Five of the six flags planted on the Moon still stand.

Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, was a socialist.

The Flag Desecration Amendment failed in 2006. The proposed constitutional amendment would have prohibited burning the flag (for political reasons) and printing it on disposable items such as t-shirts or napkins. The amendment fell one vote short in the Senate.

The 50-star flag is the first to have lasted more than 50 years.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in part to sell flags to schools. Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, worked at the time for a magazine called The Youth’s Companion, which published the pledge to encourage schoolchildren to recite it each morning. The magazine also sold flags.

Compiled by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2024.

U.S. Flag History by Legends of America.

U.S. Flag History by Legends of America.

Also See:

American History

United States Centennial 1876 by William R. Smith

United States Centennial 1876 by William R. Smith

United States Geography

United States Maps

United States Trivia, Fun Facts, and Firsts


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