United States Flag History


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Flags   Flags of the United States of America  Flags
                                         
Continental Colors Flag Betsy Ross Flag 13 Star Flag Brandywine Flag Cowpens Flag Guilford Courthouse Flag
Continential Colors
Betsy Ross Flag
Hopkinson's 13-Star Flag
Brandywine Flag
Cowpens Flag
Guilford Courthouse Flag
Culpeper Militia Flag George Washington's Flag Gadsden Flag "The Star Spangled Banner" George Rogers Clark Flag 50 Star Flag
Culpeper Minutemen Flag
Washington's Headquarters Flag Gadsden Flag Star-Spangled Banner George Rogers Clark Flag Current 50-Star Flag

 
The national flag of the United States of America, often referred to as the American 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 of six stars (top and bottom) alternating 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 Union.  Nicknames for the flag include the "Stars and Stripes", "Old Glory", and "The Star-Spangled Banner".   The design of the flag has been modified 26 times officially, 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 President Eisenhower on August 21, 1959.
 
 
History
 
First flag
At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the flag we now call “the Continental Colors” has historically been referred to as the first national flag.  The Continental Congress would not officially adopt the flag with "stars, white in a blue field" for another year.
 
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.
 
The Flag Resolution of 1777
On June 14, 1777, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which 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." Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year.
 
The 1777 Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement, number of points, nor orientation for the stars.  One famous arrangement features 13 outwardly-oriented five-pointed stars arranged in a circle.  This is what we call the “Betsy Ross” flag.  Although the Betsy Ross legend is controversial, the design is among the earliest 13-star flags.  Popular designs at the time were varied and most were individually crafted.  Examples of 13-star arrangements can be found on other flags such as the Cowpens flag, and the Brandywine flag.   Despite the 1777 Flag Resolution, a number of flags only loosely based on the prescribed design were used in the early years of American independence.  One example may have been the Guilford Court House Flag, traditionally believed to have been carried by the American troops at the Battle of Guilford Court House in 1781.
 
Later flag acts
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 "Defense of Fort McHenry," later known as "The Star-Spangled Banner", now the 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.
 
On April 4, 1818, at the suggestion of U.S.  Naval Captain Samuel C.  Reid, a plan was passed by Congress in which the flag was changed to have 20 stars, with a new star to be added when each new state was admitted.  The number of stripes would be reduced to 13 as an honor the original colonies.  Additionally, 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 most recent change, from 49 stars to 50, occurred in 1960 when the present design was chosen, after Hawaii gained statehood in August 1959.  Before that, the admission of Alaska in January 1959, the official US Flag had 49 stars.  This version only lasted one year.
                                                                                                          
Prior to the adoption of the 48-star flag in 1912, there was no official arrangement of the stars in the “field of blue”, although the military used standardized designs.  As of July 4, 2007, the 50-star flag became the longest version in use.
 
The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States
An expression of loyalty to the federal flag and the republic of the United States of America, was originally composed by Francis Bellamy (1855-1931) in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress in 1942.  The Pledge has been modified four times since its composition, with the most recent change adding the words "under God" in 1954.  Congressional sessions open with the recital of the Pledge, as do government meetings at local levels, and meetings held by many private organizations including the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution.  It is also commonly recited in school at the beginning of every school day, although the Supreme Court has ruled on several occasions that students cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge, or punished for not doing so.
 
According to the United States Code (USC), the Pledge of Allegiance reads:
 
I pledge allegiance to the flag
 of the United States of America,
 and to the republic for which it stands,
 one nation
 under God,
 indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.

 
In addition, the USC states that the Pledge, "should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.  Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present and not in uniform may render the military salute.  Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute".  Click here for a link to Section 4, Chapter 1 of the United States Code regarding The Flag. 
 
Flag etiquette
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.  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 National Society, Sons of the American Revolution and other organizations regularly conduct flag retirement ceremonies, often around Flag Day, June 14.  It is a common myth that if a flag touches the ground or becomes soiled, it must be burned as well.  While a flag that is currently touching the ground and a soiled flag are unfit for display, neither situation is permanent and thus the flag does not need to be burned if the unfit situation is remedied.
 
Section 8 of the Flag Code is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects.  "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery." Section 3 of the Flag Code defines a flag for the purposes of the code.  The U.S.  Flag Code does permit the use of flag design in fashion etcetera, provided that such a design was not formed using the actual design of the flag.  The wearing of any article of clothing representing the flag is allowed, however, the flag itself is not.
 
Although the Flag Code is U.S.  federal law, it is only binding on government institutions displaying the flag: 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.
 
Display on vehicles
When the flag is affixed to the side of a vehicle (land, sea or air), it should be oriented so that the union is towards the front, 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.

Display on uniforms
On 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.
 
Other organizations that wear flag patches on their uniforms can have the flag facing in either direction.  The uniform of the Boy Scouts of America, for example, has 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.
 
Postage stamps
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.  The 48-star flag first appeared on the General Casimir Pulaski issue of 1931, though in a small monochrome depiction.  The first U.S.  postage stamp to feature the flag as the sole subject was issued July 4, 1957.
 
Folding for storage
Though not part of the official Flag Code, according to military custom, flags should be folded into a triangular shape when not in use.  To properly fold the flag:
 
  • Begin by holding it waist-high with another person so that its surface is parallel to the ground.
  • Fold the lower half of the stripe section lengthwise over the field of stars, holding the bottom and top edges securely.
  • Fold the flag again lengthwise with the blue field on the outside.
  • Make a rectangular fold then a triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to meet the open top edge of the flag, starting the fold from the left side over to the right.
  • Turn the outer end point inward, parallel to the open edge, to form a second triangle.
  • The triangular folding is continued until the entire length of the flag is folded in this manner (usually thirteen triangular folds, as shown at right).  On the final fold, any remnant that does not neatly fold into a triangle (or in the case of exactly even folds, the last triangle) is tucked into the previous fold.
  • When the flag is completely folded, only a triangular blue field of stars should be visible.

For a demonstration for properly folding the flag, click here:
 


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