Updated date:

History of the American Flag - A Visual Delight Through the Ages

The American Flag We Know Today

The American flag that we know today is the very same design as commissioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959. And while this particular flag design is familiar today, it is important to our American heritage to note, our flag has known 26 different modifications since 1777. This red, white and blue flag with its distinctive stripes and stars is a symbol of liberty and justice to 320 million people.

So why is the history important to us? Because the history of the flag visually showcases the union of the states - the American flag shows the beginning with the 13 colonies and it shows each step of our development.

The Reason for the Evolution of the American Flag and Its Symbolism

The American flag evolved out of rebellion which turned into a revolution which crafted a constitution that set the foundation for one of the most advanced and admired nations in all of history. While our forefathers fought for liberty and carefully crafted our constitution, it is our flag that unites us, it is a symbol of 50 states with the recognition that 13 colonies declared independence from Britain. The American flag is majestic both in thought and in design. The history of the American flag, its designers, its symbol and its 26 variations are fascinating facts but it is the lessons in history that are really important. Learn about the various designers, see the six sided star, see the various renditions of the flag, learn about the controversy of the man whose invoice was denied by the Treasury, learn whether the flag is tax exempt, learn why we fly the fly at half staff and learn how Britain's half staff is different from ours, learn which locations always fly the flag at half staff, learn where first flags were sold and take our short quiz and check your score.

History of the American Flag - United States Stars and Stripes

Francis Hopkinson Style Flag

 Click to view larger image Have one to sell? Sell it yourself Framed Revolutionary War Flag, 13 Star American Flag, Francis Hopkinson Flag

Click to view larger image Have one to sell? Sell it yourself Framed Revolutionary War Flag, 13 Star American Flag, Francis Hopkinson Flag

Francis Hopkinson 1737-1791

Francis Hopkinson

  • heraldry
  • played a key role in the creation of the American flag
  • signer of the Declaration of Independence;
  • organist in Philadelphia's Christ Church in 1770
  • federal judge;
  • an inventor;
  • invented the Bellarmonic
  • an artist;
  • an essayist;
  • a scholar;
  • in 1751 one of the first attendees of of the University of Pennsylvania's graduating in 1757, master's degree 1760);
  • an organist;
  • a psalmodist; and
  • a harpsichordist
  • died at age 53 from an epileptic seizure
Six Sided Stars

Six Sided Stars

Betsy Ross 1752-1836

Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836), born Elizabeth Griscom and briefly known by her second and third married names Elizabeth Ashburn and Elizabeth Claypoole,[1] is widely credited with making the first American flag.[2][3] There is, however, no archival evidence that the story is true.[4]

  • married John Ross in 1773 at age 21
  • the marriage caused a split with her family and expulsion from the Quaker congregation
  • child - Sarah Ross
  • widowed at age 24
  • married Jospeh Ashborn 1777, Ashborn died 1780
  • married John Claypoole 1783, Claypoole died 1817
  • they had five daughters together
  • is credited with changing the six pointed stars to five points
  • spent the last three years of her life blind
  • died at the age of 84


Design Modifications of the American Flag

Design modified 26 times since 1777 and today represents 320 million people.

The 50 Star Flag Today – Longest Duration of the Many Variations

The 50 star flag of the United States of America that we know today was order by President Eisenhower on August 21, 1959, and first commissioned July 4, 1960 upon the induction of the state of Hawaii into the United States. The flag with 50 stars denotes the longest design of the American flag, second only to the 47 years of the flag with the 48 stars which latest until Alaska joined the United States in 1959.

“The Grand Union Flag (also the Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign) is considered to be the first national flag of the United States.[1] This flag consisted of 13 red and white stripes with the British Union Flag of the time (prior to the inclusion of St. Patrick's cross of Ireland) in the canton.” Source: Wikipedia.com

Betsy Ross

Dates of Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836, age 84)

"Betsy Ross, a fourth-generation America born in 1752 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, apprenticed with an upholsterer before irrevocably splitting with her family to marry outside the Quaker religion. She and her husband John Ross started their own upholstery business. Despite a lack of credible evidence to support it, legend holds that President George Washington requested that Betsy make the first American flag."

Betsy was the eighth of 17 children. Source: biography.com

Five Star and Six Star Versions of the Flag

Betsy contributed by suggesting a 5-pointed star, rather than the 6-pointed star . source: ushistory.go

The Francis Hopkinson design included six-sided stars.

The first version of the Betsy Ross flag is said to be derived from a pencil drawing given by George Washington(1732-1799, age 67).

Cowpens Flag – Named after the Battle of Cowpens January 17, 1781

"The Cowpens flag, or 3rd Maryland flag, is an early version of the United States flag that meets the congressional requirements of the Flag Resolution of 1777. Like the Betsy Ross flag, the white stars are arranged in a circle on a blue field; but the circle consists of just 12 stars, with the 13th star in the center. "

The Treasury Board and Designer Francis Hopkinson

Many think of the American flag simply as a symbol of freedom. This is completely true. The history of the American flag goes a little bit deeper, it shows a story of people coming together for a common cause and uniting but if we dig a little further, we will find a fascinating story that all of us can learn from. For you see the American is credited to Betsy Ross but more people were involved. And upon review of historical records, there is a controversy for paying for the design of the American flag.

In these days of the world wide web and copyright laws, it is important to look back and see the various steps that occurred to put this iconic American emblem together.

Francis Hopkinson - Requested Compensation for Design Denied by the Treasury Board

"The Treasury Board turned down the request in an October 27, 1780, report to Congress. The Board cited several reasons for its action, including the fact that Hopkinson “was not the only person consulted on those exhibitions of Fancy, and therefore cannot claim the sole merit of them and not entitled to the full sum charged.”[11]

Flags of the United States Throughout the Decades 1776-2013

pictorial view of the flags of the United States of America from 1776-2013

pictorial view of the flags of the United States of America from 1776-2013

Antique American Flag Quilt with 38 Stars

Antique 38 star American flag quilt $10,000 on eBay

Antique 38 star American flag quilt $10,000 on eBay

Burial Flag Given to Veterans by the VA

“A United States flag is provided, at no cost, to drape the

casket or accompany the urn of a deceased Veteran who

served honorably in the U. S. Armed Forces. It is furnished

to honor the memory of a Veteran's military

service to his or her country.” Source: cem.va.gov

Ships' Chandlery

Retail and the American Flag and Adaptive Inventory Control

In our modern age, we often forget our founding fathers did not have even the general store. So where could one purchase a flag? Flags were first sold in stores called “ship chandlery”. The ship’s chandlery was the general store for supplies for sailing ships, also known as “ship’s stores”. The other item which we must learn from history is the flag was not a common item. It was not mass produced and only the wealthy could afford a flag. It was not until the flag was adopted by U.S. Customs as part of its enforcement for tax collection that the flag was commonly available and we all know what happens when supply is increased, the price decreases.

The moral of this story is we must not forget the sacrifices made for this flag but we also must remember the financial freedoms of mass production have afforded us this luxury of having a flag. Flying a flag is a family tradition that I grew up with. I hope to pass this tradition down to the next two generations. I hope you consider this as an important American family tradition for your family and your household.

‘Out paced by military purchases, civil flag orders were almost non-existent as the cost was far more than most Americans could afford. Sightings of the Civilian Flag were rarely seen until U.S. Customs adopted the Civil Flag in it's enforcement of tax collection and inspection in ports as opposed to acts of war against merchant ships.” It is believed by some historians that the Civil Flag was discontinued after the Civil War when the federal government imposed military governments in the States and disbanded civilian government. As a show of it's power over the States, Civil Flags were discontinued and Old Glory became the sole emblem representing the People of the United States of America, united under military (or admiralty) rule.Source: civil-liberties.com

Adaptive Inventory Control

On the day after the attacks, Walmart sold 88,000 American Flags, compared to 6,400 on the same day a year earlier. In the following months, tens of millions of American Flags flew off the shelves and into civilian households.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, $51.7 million worth of imported American flags were sold in the U.S. in 2001 - $29.7 million of that went for flags made in China alone. Source: swmv.com

Amazon Add-On Item - American Flag

Today with the many changes in commerce, Americans are able to purchase a flag for a nominal price. The values are there along with the quality because of the efficiencies of the marketplace. Look for values as low as promotional items such as Amazon's Add-On Item for $0.01. Yes, a 1 cent flag! The world wide web has forever changed our communications and our commerce - all for the better. The barriers of our forefathers of being financial capable or having access to the Ship's Chandlery are all eliminated. We can readily showcase our patriotism.

Decorative Embroidered Flags

embroidered American flag with pink roses

embroidered American flag with pink roses

embroidered flags of various countries - Naval influence?

embroidered flags of various countries - Naval influence?

decorative embroidered eagle and four flags with stars

decorative embroidered eagle and four flags with stars

Tax Exemption of Flags

In many states (Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin for example) the sale of state and U.S. flags are exempt from sales tax.

Prior to, during the War for Independence, and after under the Articles of Confederation, smuggling was seen as a patriotic duty of the citizens of the thirteen independent and sovereign states, but after the ratification of the Constitution and the establishment of a new nation, smuggling needed to be stopped. The new nation depended on the revenue from customs tariffs, duties and taxes on imported goods in order to survive

The job of designing the distinguishing ensign eventually fell upon Oliver Wolcott, who had replaced Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795. On June 1, 1799, Wolcott submitted his design to President John Adams for approval. Wolcott's proposal featured an ensign of sixteen stripes, alternating red and white, representing the number of states that had joined the Union by 1799, with the Union to be the Arms of the United States in dark blue on a white field. It is significant that Wolcott turned the arrangement of the stripes ninety degrees to vertical to differentiate the new revenue cutter ensign from the U.S. Flag, to denote civilian authority under the Treasury Department, rather than military authority under the War Department. http://www.barefootsworld.net

Although intended just for Customs house usage, the new Civil Flag became adopted by both customhouses and merchants, and others who could afford them, to show their civilian nature and not under military control. The practice of using the Customs Flag as a Civil Flag became encoded in law in 1874 when Treasury Secretary William. A. Richardson required all customhouses to display the Civil Flag.

Oliver Wolcott (November 20, 1726 – December 1, 1797) was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence and also the Articles of Confederation as a representative of Connecticut and the fourth Governor of Connecticut.


When and Why Flag is Flown at Half Staff

Respect or mourning – may also be proclaimed by governor (Side note, Britain flags are flown at “half mast” and are at 2/3 of the way up the flagpole or mast).

Sites Where the American Flag is Always Flown at Half Staff


Sites which are always flown at half staff:

• Tomb of the Unknowns

• Arlington Cemetery Arlington, VA

• Arlington House Fort Myer, VA

• USS Arizona Memorial Pearl Harbor

• Mackinac Island, Michigan- Post Cemetary

Nicknames and Their Origins for the American Flag

Often we nickname what we love and so it is true for the American Flag. Often referred to as the "Stars and Stripes", the "Old Glory", and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The stars and stripes is simply a derivative of the design of the flag.

The nickname "Old Glory" was owned by a man named William Driver (1803–1886) who was a ship captain the United States and when he first saw the American flag he exclaimed "Old Glory". The story goes on that he hide the flag during the times of war afraid the Confederates might steal it so he sewed in a quilt and it was stated it was his constant companion. When he died he bequeathed his beloved flag to his daughter and shared with her "Mary Jane, this is my ship flag, Old Glory. It has been my constant companion. I love it as a mother loves her child. Cherish it as I have cherished it."

As we are all aware the Star Spangled Flag was the inspiration written by Francis Scott Key during the Defense of the Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

"Stars and Bars" - Confederate Flags Not the Same

We must remember the Confederate Flag was called the "Stars and Bars" and existed from 1861 to 1863. This flag was inspired not by Britain but Austria. This flag remains very loved by the South and is often the single most expensive antique flags for sale on eBay.

Star-Spangled Flag with 15 Stripes

American Flag Commonly Referred to as the Star-Spangled Flag that Inspired Francis Scott Key's Song that Became the National Anthem of the United States of America

American Flag Commonly Referred to as the Star-Spangled Flag that Inspired Francis Scott Key's Song that Became the National Anthem of the United States of America

American Flag and Its Symbolism

The 13 stripes are symbolic of the 13 colonies. The white stripe is symbolic of liberty

The Star Spangled Banner Flag

Interestingly, the Star-Spangled banner flag has 15 stripes


Star-Spangled Banner Flag - Inspiration for Francis Scott Key

Test Your Knowledge of the History of the American Flag

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Who is the person who is credited with creating the American Flag
    • Betsy Ross
    • Francis Hopkinson
    • Both
  2. How Many Stripes Does the Star-Spangled Flag Have?
    • 13
    • 15
    • None of the Above
  3. The Six Sided Star Was The Original Design
    • True
    • False
  4. Betsy Ross Crafted the Five Sided Star
    • True
    • False
  5. George Washington Worked with Betsy Ross on the Design of the Flag
    • True
    • False
  6. American Flags Were Proudly Flown in Many Households at the Turn of the Century
    • True
    • False
  7. American Flags Became Commonly Available When Merchant Ships Had to Display Them for Tax Purposes
    • True
    • False
  8. Inventory Management Was Changed By WalMart When the Demand for Flags Changes
    • True
    • False
  9. Flying the Flag at Half Staff or Half Mast is the Same in the US and in Britain
    • True both are flown at 1/2 the pole length
    • False Britain's Flag is Flown at 2/3 and the US at 1/2
  10. In the United States Governors May Declare To Fly the Flag at Half Staff in the United States
    • True
    • False
  11. Flags Are Flown at Half Staff
    • Occasionally
    • During Nationally and State Recognized Times of Bereavement
    • During Times Declared by the Mayor
    • Continually at Certain Sites in the United States
    • None of the Above
    • Answers 2 and 4 are Correct
  12. The Veterans Administration Provides Flags at the Time of Death to Families
    • True
    • False
  13. In Many States the Purchase of a Flag is Tax Exempt
    • True
    • False
  14. The American Flag Represents Liberty and Justice for Over 300 Million People
    • True
    • False
  15. Today The American Flag of 50 Stars is the Longest Running Variation in the History of the Flag
    • True
    • False

Answer Key

  1. Both
  2. 15
  3. True
  4. True
  5. True
  6. False
  7. True
  8. True
  9. False Britain's Flag is Flown at 2/3 and the US at 1/2
  10. True
  11. Answers 2 and 4 are Correct
  12. True
  13. True
  14. True
  15. True

© 2013 American_Choices

Comments

RTalloni on May 21, 2019:

So good to see this overview of the American flag's history, especially with Flag Day coming up this year on June 14. Taking advantage of the opportunities teach others, honor what it stands for, and take time to enjoy family and friends in celebrating it becomes more important each year.

American_Choices (author) from USA on August 01, 2013:

Hi Dennis,

Thank you so much for your high remarks. I worked hard on this and I hope it shows. I am passionate about being patriotic. I looked all over the Internet and interestingly there wasn't a concise presentation which served to further my determination me to make this a lasting contribution.

The American is truly beautiful and the real history behind it showcases the unity of mankind. I thought the backstory behind the accolades given to Betsy Ross was fascinating, not to mention Betsy Ross being disowned by her family for her marriage. We think of controversy as a modern day invention when in fact history truly does repeat itself. I am a firm believer we can see a map of our future if we take the time to understand and respect our past. Our forefathers who built this country often are just pages in a book and yet like the flag we must carry their stories with us and pass these down to our children and our grandchildren.

Dennis AuBuchon from Ohio on July 12, 2013:

The information in this hub is fantastic. The information was well presented and it is one of the most interesting and enjoyable hubs about the American flag I have ever read. I voted up, useful, awesome and interesting along with liking and tweeting.

American_Choices (author) from USA on July 07, 2013:

klidstone1970,

I am so happy a Canadian neighbor has stopped by this hub. I worried that I would isolate my foreign friends who I value tremendously. I am thrilled that you the first one to comment. This shows are world is little bit more united.

The world is so large and family and friends are the pieces that truly bring happiness. Thank you so much for stopping by. I greatly appreciate it.

American_Choices (author) from USA on July 07, 2013:

Jabelufiroz,

This was a labor of love and I greatly enjoyed my time researching it.

American_Choices (author) from USA on July 07, 2013:

Hi FitnessJim,

I always enjoy your hubs and am honored for you to stop by. In my little lifetime of 51 years, the flag has always been the American flag. I never saw a change. I enjoyed writing this as a tribute to the many holidays and proudly displaying our flag now has more meaning for our family.

Thank you for contributing - greatly appreciate it.

American_Choices (author) from USA on July 07, 2013:

PStraubie48,

I like the idea of shared Angels - thank you very much! Yes, long may she wave - she is grand but I sometimes feel we have forgotten about our freedoms and our choices. In researching the article too I had forgotten about the retail conveniences we now have. I truly love Old Glory and this was a joy to research and write. I am so glad you stopped by my friend. Thank you!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 06, 2013:

Long may she wave.....thank you for sharing this amazing symbol of our freedom....

Well researched and well presented....voted up and shared Angels are on the way ps

FitnezzJim from Fredericksburg, Virginia on July 06, 2013:

Incredibly interesting, so many folks today never have seen any version other than the 50 star version. Who knew there was so much to know about the history of the US flag?

Will revisit and bookmark ...

Firoz from India on July 06, 2013:

Impressive hub on American Flag. Voted up.

இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу from Niagara Region, Canada on July 06, 2013:

This was very interesting. Being Canadian, I only have a vague knowledge of American history that was taught in school and it never went this in-depth. I, myself, fly my Canadian flag with honour and love the fact that you want to pass down the tradition in your family. Best wishes.