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About the Author
DELPHINE HIRASUNA is the author of several books, including THE ART OF GAMAN, and the editor of @Issue: Journal of Business and Design. She lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
The American flag is but a piece of cloth decorated with stars and stripes, yet people have loved it, hated it, sworn allegiance to it, fought for it, and died for it. To millions of people, it is the embodiment of all that that United States stands for -- its values, ethics, strengths, and foibles. The most recognizable national symbol in the world today, the American flag is so familiar that people think of it whenever they see the combination of red, white, and blue.
This makes it all the more interesting that the design of the original Star-Spangled Banner was decided without fanfare and for very practical reasons. Fighting for independence from Britain, the rebelling colonies urgently needed a way to identify their meager military possessions and naval ships. "Please to fix upon some particular Colour for a flag and a Signal, by which our Vessels may know one another," Colonel Joseph Reed, George Washington's military secretary, asked naval contractors in a letter dated October 20, 1775. Although Colonel Reed suggested using the then well-known Green Tree Flag, the shortage of such flags left ship captains to agree on their own signal banner when sailing in common waters.
It was not until 1777 that the Continental Congress finally adopted an official standard in response to a request by an Indian named Thomas Green. Green sought a flag to take "to the chiefs of the nation" that would assure their safe passage when traveling on missions for the Continental Army. He included three strings of wampum, which signified a diplomatic gesture requiring a reciprocal effort. A flag for safe passage was critical to the Oneida Indians, who had provided pivotal support to the American cause and had suffered a heavy toll that cost the lives of about a third of its people. On June 14, 1777, eleven days after receiving Green's communiqué, the Continental Congress hastily responded: "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."
The sketchy wording of the flag resolution suggests that Congress did not deliberate long on details, but instead treated the matter as just one of many resolutions on the agenda that day. The Founding Fathers left much undefined, including the size and number of points on each star, their arrangement on the blue field, and the width of the red and white stripes. As a result of this vagueness, flag makers did pretty much as they pleased, arranging stars of varying sizes, five-pointed and otherwise, in concentric circles, staggered rows, larger star patterns, geometric shapes, and random order. The liberty that the Continental Congress afforded flag makers was partly due to the fact that a national flag was not considered as important as the regimental colors of the militia or the Great Seal of the Republic. Its use was limited primarily to military holdings and naval vessels. Continental newspapers did not even bother to report passage of the flag resolution until the fall of 1777.
How the members of Congress arrived at a star-spangled banner of red, white, and blue is unknown, but one can see the influence of regimental flags in the design. A blue canton bearing thirteen stars graced both the flags of New Hampshire's Green Mountain Boys and the Continental Rhode Island Regiment. Boston's radical revolutionary group, the Sons of Liberty, had earlier adopted a red-and-white "stripes of rebellion" banner. The stripes reappear in the Continental Colors, also known as the Grand Union Flag, that bore a design of thirteen stripes, alternately red and white, with a blue field in the upper-left-hand corner bearing the red cross of St. George of England with the white cross of St. Andrew of Scotland. The Continental Colors remained in general use throughout the colonies from 1775 until the flag resolution of 1777. The British crosses were likely dropped to avoid suggesting a hope for reconciliation under the Crown.
Although romantic lore often credits a Philadelphia seamstress named Betsy Ross with making the first Stars and Stripes banner, substantial evidence points to Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as the creator. Hopkinson was a commissioner on the Continental Congress's Navy Board when the flag resolution was adopted, and would have logically been involved in what was considered a naval matter. He also had a keen interest in heraldry and participated in the design of the Great Seal of the United States. Records show that in 1780, Hopkinson billed the Continental Congress for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars in public wine, in part for the flag design. Congress refused on the grounds that he "had not been the only one to work on the project" and because "individuals already receiving a salary from Congress should not try to charge the public more for 'these little assistances.'"
Even after the Revolution was won, Congress paid little attention to the nation's official banner. When Kentucky and Vermont were admitted to the Union in 1794, it was agreed to represent them on the flag by expanding the number of stars and stripes to fifteen, although at least one congressman complained that such an alteration was "a consummate piece of frivolity" that would cost sixty dollars for each ship in the merchant fleet.
This fifteen-star version inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" after witnessing British warships steadily bombard Fort McHenry one night during the War of 1812. On the back of an envelope, Key scribbled his awe at seeing the Star-Spangled Banner through the "rockets' red glare" and "by the dawn's early light." In 1816, the poem was set to the tune of a popular English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and its singing contributed to the cultural mythology surrounding the flag.
By 1818, the plan to represent each state with its own star and its own stripe proved unwieldy. With five new states admitted into the Union that year and other territories vying for admission, it was clear that the broad stripes would soon become pinstripes. Balancing practicality and equality, Congress decreed that the flag revert back to thirteen horizontal stripes, alternating red and white, symbolizing the original thirteen colonies, with each state represented by a single star. Each star would be added on the Fourth of July following the date of admission to the Union.
The frequent addition of new stars -- twenty-eight between 1818 and 1912 -- meant that the American flag was hardly a static symbol. Like the nation itself, it was growing and ever changing. During the nineteenth century, new states were being admitted with such frequency that practical flag makers left gaps on the canton so that new stars could be stitched into place.
The average citizen, however, continued to view the nation's flag as primarily a military standard until the Civil War fostered a flag cult among those who sought to preserve the Union. The Stars and Stripes became a rallying symbol, particularly after secessionist troops bombarded Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The victory led Confederate Secretary of War L. P. Walker to predict that the Confederate flag would fly "over the dome of the old Capitol at Washington before the first of May." Outraged Northerners reacted by raising the Star-Spangled Banner in every town and village. Union nurse Mary A. Livermore recalls the sight in her autobiography, My Story of the War (1889): "Flags floated from the roofs of the houses, were flung to the breeze from chambers of commerce and boards of trade, spanned the surging streets, decorated the private parlor, glorified the school-room, festooned the church walls and pulpit, and blossomed everywhere."
Reverence for the flag intensified into a civil religion with the sight of the Stars and Stripes accompanying men going off to war and draping the coffins of fallen soldiers. Yankee mothers even taught their daughters to make small flags -- sometimes called Bible flags because they were tucked into the family Bible -- to foster patriotic devotion. The Star-Spangled Banner resonated emotionally with citizens who displayed their loyalty and affection by integrating the flag motif into everyday life.
This cult of the flag continued after the Civil War ended and gained strength with the celebration of America's Centennial in 1876. To mark the anniversary of the nation's birth, the United States hosted its first world's fair in Philadelphia, where it exhibited innovations and achievements that boasted of the country's progress and promise for the future. Reinvigorated with national pride, Americans adorned all kinds of objects with images of the Stars and Stripes.
This patriotic momentum grew stronger in the closing decade of the nineteenth century as veterans groups and women's hereditary societies embraced the flag as the vehicle for teaching young people proper moral code, patriotism, and respect for cultural institutions. In 1892, the veterans group of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) successfully lobbied to require flags to be raised on all schoolhouses and pushed to have them flown in churches. That same year Francis Bellamy wrote "The Pledge of Allegiance" for a popular magazine called The Youth's Companion to mark Columbus's discovery of America. Reprinted on thousands of leaflets, The Pledge of Allegiance was sent out to schools nationwide for children to recite at Columbus Day festivities. Many schools continued this practice even though Congress did not officially recognize The Pledge of Allegiance until 1942.
Politicians and merchants, quick to capitalize on the cult of the flag, appropriated the popular icon for their own purposes. Politicians printed their campaign slogans and portraits on flag banners, and merchants unabashedly wrapped their wares in flag packaging and made the Stars and Stripes part of their trademark. By the late 1890s, the Stars and Stripes could be seen on everything from pincushions and pillowcases to clown costumes and pickled pork. In the absence of official flag guidelines, flag makers, commercial enterprises, and private citizens were free to follow their own fancy -- and did. Patriotic societies charged that the blatant commercial exploitation of the flag was cheapening the nation's most revered symbol and lobbied to protect it from rampant desecration. Soon more than two hundred flag committees were formed on local, state, and national levels to define proper flag usage by advertisers, merchants, and politicians. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Congress approved a code of flag etiquette and a series of detailed design standards. Today the official flag adheres to strict design guidelines and is uniform in appearance and presentation.
More than a century without official rules, however, has yielded a wealth of exuberant and unbridled creative interpretations of the national banner. Fascinating for what they reveal about the culture and history of the United States, these ephemeral flag objects and artifacts are their own genre of folk art and a unique part of the American heritage.