In a Nutshell: The History of the American Flag

In a Nutshell: The History of the American Flag

Old Glory, The Stars and Stripes, the Red, White and Blue, and the Star-Spangled Banner; the flag that waves o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave has many nicknames, but it’s more plainly known as the American flag. The American flag is an important piece of American history. Unfortunately, there aren't many Americans who fully understand how the flag came into existence and evolved throughout the decades. You might be surprised to learn that the history of the American flag dates all the way back to 1775—that’s an entire year before America gained independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Since 1775, there have been 27 alterations to the American flag's design, with more changes predicted in the foreseeable future. If you're interested in learning more about the history of this prominent patriotic symbol, here's the history of the American flag in a nutshell.

The Symbolism of the American Flag

There's no symbol quite as patriotic as the American flag. Americans take their love for their country seriously—take a stroll through any town or city, and you're almost guaranteed to see the American flag at least once. It’s commonly displayed on public and private residences, pasted onto windows of cars, and proudly showcased on people's clothing. Americans display the American flag to show their love and pride for their country and fellow countrymen. To them, the flag represents freedom, individuality, respect for the people who died to protect their country, and much more.

But what's the official meaning of the flag? Interestingly enough, the meaning behind the original flag remains unknown. There are, however, several meanings that were given to the flag by various notable individuals and popularized over the years. Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774–1789, gave symbolic meanings to the three colors of the flag. According to Thomson, red signifies hardiness and valor, white signifies purity and innocence, and blue signifies perseverance and justice. The Flag Resolution of 1777 is what gave symbolism to the stars and stripes. The stripes are meant to represent the original 13 Colonies, while the stars represent the current number of states of the union.

The First Flag

The Continental Congress didn't legally adopt the Stars and Stripes until a year after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The first national flag was what was known as the Continental Colors or Grand Union flag. This is the flag that was flown during the American War for Independence. The Grand Union flag has the alternating red-and-white stripes of the modern flag, but instead of stars, the canton features the Kingdom of Great Britain’s flag. Many claim that the design of the Grand Union flag was heavily influenced by the flag of the British East India Company, but the evidence to support this theory is lacking. Others argue that the design was inspired by the coat of arms of George Washington's family, which features red stars and the signature alternating stripes.

The Flag Resolution on 1777 is what officially declared that the flag of the United States should be "... thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." Between 1777 and 1960, numerous other acts were passed that changed the shape, design, and arrangement of the flag, and that also allowed for additional stars and stripes to be added for each new state.

The original 1777 flag is a real mystery. There's no consensus on who produced it, or even what it looked like. Margaret Manny created the Grand Union flag, but she wasn't the designer of the Stars and Stripes. Who was the creator of this iconic design, then? Most of us were taught that Betsy Ross designed and sewed the original flag, but this may not be true. There were more than 17 flag makers and upholsterers working in Philadelphia when the earliest American flags were made. Any one of them could have produced the first-ever Stars and Stripes flag. Other possible designers include Rebecca Young, Anne King, Cornelia Bridges, William Barrett, Hugh Stewart, William Alliborne, and even Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

We might never know the true origin of the 1777 flag, but that doesn't change the fact that it was a vital stepping stone in the history of the American flag. The 1777 flag was the basis for the 26 designs that followed, including the design of the flag that we use today.

Changes Throughout the Years

There have been 28 variations of the American flag, most of them incredibly similar to one another. They all feature the same red, white, and blue coloration, and apart from the Grand Union Flag, incorporate both stars and stripes into the design. The most noticeable difference between each version is the number and arrangement of the stars in the canton.

The number of stars in the canton depends on the number of states there were in the union during that time. From 1819 to 1912, there was an update to the flag at least once a decade. After New Mexico and Arizona were added in 1912, the design of the flag remained stagnant for nearly 50 years. This changed when Alaska and Hawaii were added in 1959 and 1960 respectively, giving us the 50-star flag that we still use today. The arrangement of the stars also varied from design to design. The modern flag has the stars lined up in rows, while several other versions also featured this arrangement. However, there were also versions of the flag that arranged the individual stars into larger star shapes or circular patterns instead.

The version of the flag we use today is nearing its 61st anniversary. It's been used the longest out of all the designs, but that doesn't mean it will last forever. The likelihood of another state joining the union in our lifetimes is high. There have been many U.S. territories that have discussed applying for statehood, including the District of Columbia (D.C.) and Puerto Rico. Even Washington D.C. has considered becoming a state. If this were to happen, an additional star would be added to the existing flag. However, the addition of another star won't render the current version of the flag obsolete. You can display any approved version of the flag until it's no longer serviceable. This means you won't have to rush to get a replacement flag if a new state is added to the union. You can continue to wear the same American-themed apparel, decorate with the same Fourth of July decorations, and wave the same flag outside your door for years to come.

Proudly waving the American flag is one way to show your patriotism, but it isn’t the only way. If you're searching for more ways to show your love and respect for America, come and check out Greater Half's selection of patriotic accessories and apparel, including patriotic jackets, today!

In a Nutshell: The History of the American Flag