History of Old Glory, and Fun Facts about the American Flag

“Old Glory” has been one of the world’s most enduring icons, overflowing with symbolism and meaning. Throughout the history of the American flag, a similar design was apparent, consisting of thirteen horizontal red stripes, alternating with white, and a blue rectangular “Union” in the top left hand corner bearing fifty white, five-pointed stars. The flag has undergone a fascinating evolution over the centuries, through political conflict, governmental upheavals and war. The stars represent the 50 states of America.  The stripes signify the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The colors are also symbolic.  The color red symbolizes resilience and valor, white for purity and innocence and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice.

The current design of the US flag is actually the 27th version and has been in use for 57 years since Eisenhower’s presidency. This symbol of the free world has been flying since 1777, a year after the Declaration of Independence. The American flag’s history represents an interesting, complex and rich tapestry of events that has not only molded the design of the flag, but the country itself.

Origins and Interesting Facts of the United States Flag

The American Flag, displayed from a flag pole.
The American Flag, displayed from a flag pole.

It is believed that the original flag was designed by New Jersey Congressman, Francis Hopkinson, and sewn by Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress. The traditional nickname, “Old Glory” was first created verbally by William Driver, a Salem ship master in 1831. His famous shout of “Old Glory!” was expressed upon seeing the twenty-four star flag unfold on the wind for the first time, stuck and was preserved in posterity ever since. He demonstrated his devotion to the flag by cleverly concealing it within his bed covers during the Civil War to keep it hidden from raiding Rebels, thus cementing his place in the American flag’s history.

American patriotism is well-known and many citizens proudly fly the flag from their homes, businesses, as well as community parks, municipal buildings and cemeteries.  There are a few national locations where the US flag is flown continually by law. They include Fort  McHenry and Flag House Square both in Baltimore, United States Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima) in Arlington, Lexington Battle Green, the White House in Washington DC, US customs ports of entry and the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge.

“Old Glory”  has been the inspiration for not only the national anthem, the Star-spangled Banner, written in 1931 by Francis Scott Key, but also inspired James Upham and Francis Bellamy to write the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892.  Through history, many US flags have been displayed and flown at memorable and historic locations. For instance, in 1909, Robert Peary placed an American flag at the North Pole. Similarly, Barry Bishop left a flag atop Mount Everest in 1963. And maybe, most famous of all, Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon in 1969.

The history of the American flag has seen some interesting progression. Let’s look at the ten most prominent versions of  “Old Glory”, as displayed in this american flag poster procurable through Station Bay.

The Pine Tree Flag

The Pine Tree Flag

The birth of the American flag was the colonial flag of Massachusetts.  It was used as early as 1700 and declared as the official Navy flag in 1776. It was one of the earliest symbolic representations of the thirteen colonies, as the pine tree had long since been depicted on the flag of New England and flown on merchant ships as early as 1686. Therefore, it became a symbol of colonial ire and resistance.

The flag was also known as the “Appeal to Heaven Flag”.  Along with the associated motto, the flag was initially commissioned by George Washington for a squadron of six cruisers in 1775. The flag was designed by Colonel Joseph Reed, General Washington’s secretary, and has since been seen as a symbol of the Revolution.

During the 17th century British conflicts, the scholar John Locke published his “Second Treatise of Government” which stated:

where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment.

This quote was the inspiration behind the motto and alludes to the 1688 “Glorious Revolution” that saw the overthrow of King James II.  Locke’s argument that people have absolute rights and rebellion against oppression is justified, was subsequently adopted by the Continental Army.

Grand Union Flag

Grand Union Flag

An important emblem in American flag history, this flag went by many names such as the Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, the First Navy Ensign and finally and most commonly, the Grand Union Flag. It was  modified from the British Union Jack and represents the first national flag of the United States of America.

The Second Continental Congress, by the end of 1775, acted as a de facto war government and authorized this flag to represent the emergent nation during the first year of the Revolutionary War and revealed the beginning of a rift from the British Empire.

Revolutionary “Betsy Ross” Flag

Revolutionary “Betsy Ross” Flag

Only a few historic US flags are attributed to people. In this case, the attribution to Betsy Ross is most likely questionable. Vexillologists discount the claim that she contributed to the design of this flag. Despite this, the Betsy Ross flag still played an important role in American flag history. The circle of stars represents the original thirteen colonies, whereas the thirteen stripes signify the states.

According to the traditional report, the flag was sewn in June 1776 on the orders of George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross. The report states that Betsy took it upon herself to replace the six-pointed stars with the five-pointed version that endures today. The Betsy Ross flag is featured on the seal of the United States Department of Veteran affairs, together with the contemporary flag, to represent veterans throughout American history.

Cowpens Flag

Cowpens Flag

In 1781,  General Daniel Morgan won one of the greatest Continental victories of the Revolutionary War at Cowpens, South Carolina, by effectively stopping the advancing British forces. The flag was said to have been carried by William Batchelor of the 3rd Maryland Regiment and thus the emblem became known as the “3rd Maryland design”. The Cowpens flag has remained one of the most popular in American flag history, primarily due to the battle’s significance in the Revolutionary War.

Fort McHenry Flag

Fort McHenry Flag

During the war of 1812, Baltimore was lying in wait of imminent attack by the British. In the preceding preparations, Fort McHenry was readied for the defense of Baltimore but there was no suitable flag to fly above the fort.  Major George Armistead commissioned a garrison flag, which turned out to be the biggest throughout the American flag’s history, measuring 30 by 42 feet. The flag had 15 stars and 15 stripes to represent the states and it was this particular flag that Francis Scott Key saw on that September morning in 1814 which inspired the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” originally entitled the “Defense of Fort McHenry”.

Grand Star Flag

Grand Star Flag

The Grand Star flag displayed 20 stars in the shape of a large star, in response to the addition of five new states to the United States in 1818. Congress proclaimed that one star should be added for each new state and the stripes would be returned to thirteen to represent the original colonies.

Bennington Flag

Bennington Flag

The American flag facts surrounding this flag are widely debated. One account claims it was carried by Nathaniel Fillmore at the Battle of Bennington. Conversely, there are those who believe it was constructed at a much later date as a commemorative flag. This flag differs from others in American flag history with various slight modifications. The number 76 in the canton venerates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.    Also, the arrangement of stripes places the white stripes on the outer edge which looks unusual. Furthermore, the stars are seven-pointed and the canton stands taller than on other flags, spanning nine instead of seven of the stripes.

United States 34 Star Flag

34 Star Flag

The 34 Star flag took its place as an historic American flag after the addition of the state of Kansas in 1861. It endured for a mere two years, under which President Abraham Lincoln served, after which West Virginia was added as a state. In that time, withdrawal from the Union was deemed illegal and thus the flag continued to bear the stars of all the states, even the Southern ones. There were a number of designs for this flag regarding the formation of the stars, but the offset rows seem to have withstood as the most popular arrangement.

United States 50 Star Flag

50 Star Flag

As mentioned above, this flag has been the longest enduring flag in American flag history, being in use for 57 years, since the Eisenhower presidency in 1960. This flag has become a powerful symbol of American culture and is flown proudly in many homes and civic buildings. The designer of the current flag was a 17 year-old named Robert Heft, who designed the flag as a school project in 1958. The student received a B- on the project, but this grade was changed to an A after his design was selected.

First Navy Jack

The First Navy Jack was flown from the jack-staff of US commissioned vessels while in harbor or at anchor. The Navy Jack was flown as early as 1775 and was just a red and white striped flag. From the year 1880, it has been portrayed as an uncoiled rattlesnake depicted on a red and white striped field, along with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me”. There is some controversy surrounding the history of this American flag, as historians are now disputing the fact that this emblem ever existed, but was rather an erroneous interpretation of historical engravings.

In conclusion

Patriotism is an unreservedly American characteristic and nothing represents that culture more than the American flag. Most houses boast one, either flying on a mast or even a decorative american flag banner. It has become a symbol of freedom and togetherness and continues to be an emblem around which the nation can gather. The American flag has had a rich and elaborate history, spanning centuries and many transformations to bring us the current emblem. No matter which version of the flag was in use, a common thread of patriotism and greatness was deployed under it, creating a symbol of a nation united.

Checkout our selection of military specific history posters, which display details of the past.

References: Smithsonian Mag, United States Flag, US History, Wikipedia    Photo Credit: hrogerl01

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