Happy 240th Birthday to the U.S. National Flag!

South Korea #1034 (1976)

South Korea #1034 (1976)

June 14 is annually celebrated in the United States as Flag Day, commemorating the adoption of the U.S. national flag on June 14, 1777, by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. Additionally, the week of June 14 ( June 11–17 in 2017) is designated as National Flag Week, during which the President of the United States issues a proclamation urging U.S. citizens to fly the national flag for the duration of the week. The flag is also displayed on all government buildings. Some organizations, such as the town of Dedham, Massachusetts, hold parades and events in celebration of the U.S.A.’s national flag and everything it represents. The flag consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton (referred to specifically as the “union”) bearing fifty small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows, where rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternate with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states of the United States of America, and the 13 stripes represent the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and became the first states in the U.S. Nicknames for the flag include The Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, and The Star-Spangled Banner.

In 1916, the U.S. president  issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day; in August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. Flag Day is not an official federal holiday. Title 36 of the United States Code, Subtitle I, Part A, CHAPTER 1, § 110[4] is the official statute on Flag Day; however, it is at the president’s discretion to officially proclaim the observance. On June 14, 1937, Pennsylvania became the first U.S. state to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday, beginning in the town of Rennerdale. New York Statutes designate the second Sunday in June as Flag Day, a state holiday.

Perhaps the oldest continuing Flag Day parade is in Fairfield, Washington. Beginning in 1909 or 1910, Fairfield has held a parade every year since, with the possible exception of 1918, and celebrated the “Centennial” parade in 2010, along with some other commemorative events. The largest Flag Day parade is held annually in Troy, New York, which bases its parade on the Quincy parade and typically draws 50,000 spectators. In addition, the Three Oaks, Michigan, Flag Day Parade is held annually on the weekend of Flag Day and is a three-day event.

 

At the time of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the Continental Congress would not legally adopt flags with “stars, white in a blue field” for another year. The flag contemporaneously known as “the Continental Colors” has historically been referred to as the first national flag. The Continental Navy raised the Colors as the ensign of the fledgling nation in the American War for Independence — likely with the expedient of transforming their previous British red ensigns by adding white stripes — and would use this flag until 1777, when it would form the basis for the subsequent de jure designs. The name “Grand Union” was first applied to the Continental Colors by George Preble in his 1872 history of the American flag.

The flag closely resembles the British East India Company flag of the era, and Sir Charles Fawcett argued in 1937 that the company flag inspired the design. Both flags could have been easily constructed by adding white stripes to a British Red Ensign, one of the three maritime flags used throughout the British Empire at the time. However, an East India Company flag could have from nine to 13 stripes, and was not allowed to be flown outside the Indian Ocean. In any case, both the stripes (barry) and the stars (mullets) have precedents in classical heraldry. Mullets were comparatively rare in early modern heraldry, but an example of mullets representing territorial divisions predating the U.S. flag are those in the coat of arms of Valais of 1618, where seven mullets stood for seven districts.

Continental Colors

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: “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.” While scholars still argue about this, tradition holds that the new flag was first hoisted in June 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment.

The first official U.S. flag flown during battle was on August 3, 1777, at Fort Schuyler (Fort Stanwix) during the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Massachusetts reinforcements brought news of the adoption by Congress of the official flag to Fort Schuyler. Soldiers cut up their shirts to make the white stripes; scarlet material to form the red was secured from red flannel petticoats of officers’ wives, while material for the blue union was secured from Capt. Abraham Swartwout’s blue cloth coat. A voucher is extant that Capt. Swartwout of Dutchess County was paid by Congress for his coat for the flag.

The 1777 resolution was most probably meant to define a naval ensign. In the late eighteenth century, the notion of a national flag did not yet exist, or was only nascent. The flag resolution appears between other resolutions from the Marine Committee. On May 10, 1779, Secretary of the Board of War Richard Peters expressed concern “it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the United States.” However, the term, “Standard,” referred to a national standard for the Army of the United States. Each regiment was to carry the national standard in addition to its regimental standard. The national standard was not a reference to the national or naval flag.

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement, number of points, nor orientation for the stars and the arrangement or whether the flag had to have seven red stripes and six white ones or vice versa. The appearance was up to the maker of the flag. Some flag makers arranged the stars into one big star, in a circle or in rows and some replaced a state’s star with its initial. One arrangement features 13 five-pointed stars arranged in a circle, with the stars arranged pointing outwards from the circle (as opposed to up), the so-called Betsy Ross flag. This flag, however, is more likely a flag used for celebrations of anniversaries of the nation’s birthday. Experts have dated the earliest known example of this flag to be 1792 in a painting by John Trumbull.

Betsy Ross flag

Despite the 1777 resolution, the early years of American independence featured many different flags. Most were individually crafted rather than mass-produced. While there are many examples of 13-star arrangements, some of those flags included blue stripes as well as red and white. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in a letter dated October 3, 1778, to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, described the American flag as consisting of “13 stripes, alternately red, white, and blue, a small square in the upper angle, next the flag staff, is a blue field, with 13 white stars, denoting a new Constellation.” John Paul Jones used a variety of 13-star flags on his U.S. Navy ships including the well-documented 1779 flags of the Serapis and the Alliance. The Serapis flag had three rows of eight-pointed stars with stripes that were red, white, and blue. The flag for the Alliance, however, had five rows of eight-pointed stars with 13 red and white stripes, and the white stripes were on the outer edges. Both flags were documented by the Dutch government in October 1779, making them two of the earliest known flags of 13 stars.

Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a naval flag designer, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag while he was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department, sometime between his appointment to that position in November 1776 and the time that the flag resolution was adopted in June 1777. The Navy Board was under the Continental Marine Committee. Not only did Hopkinson claim that he designed the U.S. flag, but he also claimed that he designed a flag for the U.S. Navy. Hopkinson was the only person to have made such a claim during his own lifetime, when he sent a letter and several bills to Congress for his work. These claims are documented in the Journals of the Continental Congress and George Hasting’s biography of Hopkinson.

Hopkinson initially wrote a letter to Congress, via the Continental Board of Admiralty, on May 25, 1780. In this letter, he asked for a “Quarter Cask of the Public Wine” as payment for designing the U.S. flag, the seal for the Admiralty Board, the seal for the Treasury Board, Continental currency, the Great Seal of the United States, and other devices. However, in three subsequent bills to Congress, Hopkinson asked to be paid in cash, but he did not list his U.S. flag design. Instead, he asked to be paid for designing the “great Naval Flag of the United States” in the first bill; the “Naval Flag of the United States” in the second bill; and “the Naval Flag of the States” in the third, along with the other items. The flag references were generic terms for the naval ensign that Hopkinson had designed, that is, a flag of seven red stripes and six white ones. The predominance of red stripes made the naval flag more visible against the sky on a ship at sea. By contrast, Hopkinson’s flag for the United States had seven white stripes, and six red ones — in reality, six red stripes laid on a white background.

Hopkinson’s sketches have not been found, but we can make these conclusions because Hopkinson incorporated different stripe arrangements in the Admiralty (naval) Seal that he designed in the Spring of 1780 and the Great Seal of the United States that he proposed at the same time. His Admiralty Seal had seven red stripes; whereas, his second U.S. Seal proposal had seven white ones. Hopkinson’s flag for the Navy is the one that the Nation preferred as the national flag. Remnants of Hopkinson’s U.S. flag of seven white stripes can be found in the Great Seal of the United States and the President’s seal. When Hopkinson was chairman of the Navy Board, his position was like that of today’s Secretary of the Navy. The payment was not made, however, because it was determined he had already received a salary as a member of Congress. This contradicts the legend of the Betsy Ross flag, which suggests that she sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag by request of the government in the Spring of 1776. Furthermore, a letter from the War Board to George Washington on May 10, 1779, documents that there was still no design established for a national flag for the Army’s use in battle.

Francis Hopkinson's flag for the U.S. Navy, featuring 13 six-pointed stars arranged in rows.

Francis Hopkinson’s flag for the U.S. Navy, featuring 13 six-pointed stars arranged in rows.

The origin of the stars and stripes design has been muddled by a story disseminated by the descendants of Betsy Ross. The apocryphal story credits Betsy Ross for sewing the first flag from a pencil sketch handed to her by George Washington. No evidence for this exists either in the diaries of George Washington nor in the records of the Continental Congress. Indeed, nearly a century passed before Ross’ grandson, William Canby, first publicly suggested the story in 1870. By her family’s own admission, Ross ran an upholstery business, and she had never made a flag as of the supposed visit in June 1776. Furthermore, her grandson admitted that his own search through the Journals of Congress and other official records failed to find corroboration of his grandmother’s story.

The family of Rebecca Young claimed that she sewed the first flag. Young’s daughter was Mary Pickersgill, who made the Star Spangled Banner Flag. According to rumor, the Washington family coat of arms, shown in a fifteenth-century window of Selby Abbey, was the origin of the stars and stripes.

In 1795, the number of stars and stripes was increased from 13 to 15 (to reflect the entry of Vermont and Kentucky as states of the Union). For a time the flag was not changed when subsequent states were admitted, probably because it was thought that this would cause too much clutter. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, later known as “The Star Spangled Banner”, which is now the American national anthem. The flag is currently on display in the exhibition, “The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem” at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History in a two-story display chamber that protects the flag while it is on view.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner

On April 4, 1818, a plan was passed by Congress at the suggestion of U.S. Naval Captain Samuel C. Reid in which the flag was changed to have 20 stars, with a new star to be added when each new state was admitted, but the number of stripes would be reduced to 13 so as to honor the original colonies. The act specified that new flag designs should become official on the first July 4 (Independence Day) following admission of one or more new 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 most recent change, from 49 stars to 50, occurred in 1960 when the present design was chosen, after Hawaii gained statehood in August 1959. Prior to the adoption of the 48-star flag in 1912, there was no official arrangement of the stars in the canton, although the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy used standardized designs. Throughout the nineteenth century there was an abundance of different star patterns, rectangular and circular.

Great Star Flag (20 stars), 1818-1819

Great Star Flag (20 stars), 1818-1819

Fort Sumter Flag (33 stars), 1859-1861

Fort Sumter Flag (33 stars), 1859-1861

38-Star Flag, 1877-1890

38-Star Flag, 1877-1890

In the November 2012 U.S. election, Puerto Rico voted to become a U.S. state. However, the legitimacy of the result of this election was disputed. On June 11, 2017, another referendum was held, this time with the result that 97% of voters in Puerto Rico voted for statehood. Similarly in November 2016, a statehood referendum was held in the District of Columbia where 86% of voters approving the proposal. If a new U.S. state were to be admitted, it would require a new design on the flag to accommodate the additional star.

The modern meaning of the flag was forged in December 1860, when Major Robert Anderson moved the U.S. garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Author Adam Goodheart argues this was the opening move of the American Civil War, and the flag was used throughout northern states to symbolize American nationalism and rejection of secessionism.

Before that day, the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like American Independence day. But in the weeks after Major Anderson’s surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew—as it does today, and especially as it did after the September 11 attacks in 2001—from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads. For the first time American flags were mass-produced rather than individually stitched and even so, manufacturers could not keep up with demand. As the long winter of 1861 turned into spring, that old flag meant something new. The abstraction of the Union cause was transfigured into a physical thing: strips of cloth that millions of people would fight for, and many thousands die for.

The flag of the United States is one of the nation’s most widely recognized symbols. Within the United States, flags are frequently displayed not only on public buildings but on private residences. The flag is a common motif on decals for car windows, and clothing ornaments such as badges and lapel pins. Throughout the world the flag has been used in public discourse to refer to the United States. The flag has become a powerful symbol of Americanism, and is proudly flown on many occasions, with giant outdoor flags used by retail outlets to draw customers. Desecration of the flag is considered a public outrage, but remains protected as freedom of speech. In worldwide comparison, Testi noted in 2010 that the United States was not unique in adoring its banner, for the flags of Scandinavian countries are also “beloved, domesticated, commercialized and sacralized objects”.

The United States Flag Code outlines certain guidelines for the use, display, and disposal of the flag. For example, the flag should never be dipped to any person or thing, unless it is the ensign responding to a salute from a ship of a foreign nation. This tradition may come from the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, where countries were asked to dip their flag to King Edward VII: the American flag bearer did not. Team captain Martin Sheridan is famously quoted as saying “this flag dips to no earthly king”, though the true provenance of this quotation is unclear.

The flag should never be allowed to touch the ground and, if flown at night, must be illuminated. If the edges become tattered through wear, the flag should be repaired or replaced. When a flag is so tattered that it can no longer serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. The American Legion and other organizations regularly conduct flag retirement ceremonies, often on Flag Day, June 14. The Boy Scouts of America recommends that modern nylon or polyester flags be recycled instead of burned, due to hazardous gases being produced when such materials are burned.

The Flag Code prohibits using the flag “for any advertising purpose” and also states that the flag “should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use”. Both of these codes are generally ignored, almost always without comment.

Section 8, entitled Respect For Flag states in part: “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery”, and “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform”. Section 3 of the Flag Code[80] defines “the flag” as anything “by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag of the United States of America”. An additional part of Section 8 Respect For Flag, that is frequently violated at sporting events is part (c) “The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”

Although the Flag Code is U.S. federal law, there is no penalty for a private citizen or group failing to comply with the Flag Code and it is not widely enforced — indeed, punitive enforcement would conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Passage of the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment would overrule legal precedent that has been established.

When the flag is affixed to the right side of a vehicle of any kind (e.g.: cars, boats, planes, any physical object that moves), it should be oriented so that the canton is towards the front of the vehicle, as if the flag were streaming backwards from its hoist as the vehicle moves forward. Therefore, U.S. flag decals on the right sides of vehicles may appear to be reversed, with the union to the observer’s right instead of left as more commonly seen.

The flag has been displayed on every U.S. spacecraft designed for manned flight, including Mercury, Gemini, Apollo Command/Service Module, Apollo Lunar Module, and the Space Shuttle. The flag also appeared on the S-IC first stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle used for Apollo. But since Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were launched and landed vertically and were not capable of horizontal atmospheric flight as the Space Shuttle did on its landing approach, the “streaming” convention was not followed and these flags were oriented with the stripes running horizontally, perpendicular to the direction of flight.

On some U.S. military uniforms, flag patches are worn on the right shoulder, following the vehicle convention with the union toward the front. This rule dates back to the Army’s early history, when both mounted cavalry and infantry units would designate a standard bearer, who carried the Colors into battle. As he charged, his forward motion caused the flag to stream back. Since the Stars and Stripes are mounted with the canton closest to the pole, that section stayed to the right, while the stripes flew to the left. Several US military uniforms, such as flight suits worn by members of the United States Air Force and Navy, have the flag patch on the left shoulder.

Other organizations that wear flag patches on their uniforms can have the flag facing in either direction. The congressional charter of the Boy Scouts of America stipulates that the uniforms should not imitate U.S. military uniforms; consequently, the flags are displayed on the right shoulder with the stripes facing front, the reverse of the military style. Law enforcement officers often wear a small flag patch, either on a shoulder, or above a shirt pocket.

Every U.S. astronaut since the crew of Gemini 4 has worn the flag on the left shoulder of his or her space suit, with the exception of the crew of Apollo 1, whose flags were worn on the right shoulder. In this case, the canton was on the left.

The flag did not appear on U.S. postal stamp issues until the Battle of White Plains issue was released in 1926, depicting the flag with a circle of 13 stars (Scott #629). The 48-star flag first appeared on the General Casimir Pulaski issue of 1931, though in a small monochrome depiction (Scott #690). The first U.S. postage stamp to feature the flag as the sole subject was issued July 4, 1957 (Scott #1094). Since that time the flag has frequently appeared on U.S. stamps.

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It has also appeared on stamps issued by other nations rather frequently and I find these depictions somewhat more interesting. Thus, I chose a stamp of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to illustrate today’s article. Scott #1034 was released on May 8, 1976, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The 100 won stamp features the Besty Ross and 50-star U.S. flags along with the emblem of the Bicentennial. It’s perforated 13 x 13½ and printed by photogravure.

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