A brief history of Flag Day and the U.S. flag

“Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

These were the words of the resolution passed on June 14, 1777, that officially declared the design of the United States’ flag. The tale of our nation’s flag leading up to this point, and in the many years since, is a long and storied one.

During the American Revolution, there was no single flag unifying the colonists. Most regiments fought under their own unique flags; however, in June of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to establish the Continental Army, thus leading to the creation of the Continental Colors, essentially the earliest form of the American flag.

Composed of 13 red and white alternating stripes with a Union Jack in the corner, some felt that the Continental Colors were too similar to the existing British flag. Eventually, two years later, Congress passed the Flag Resolution, which, as stated above, mandated the design of the first national flag. Though a popular fable in American mythology, the story of Betsy Ross sewing this first American flag has never been historically verified; while Ross family tradition holds that George Washington requested her help designing the flag in 1776, no archival evidence or other tradition back up said story. Allegedly, the story first appears in the writings of her grandson nearly a century later, with no mention or documentation in earlier decades. However, Ross’ career as a seamstress and upholsterer is well known; she produces many uniforms, tents and, indeed, flags, for Continental forces.

The national banner continued to go through changes as the country did, adding stars in new arrangements as states joined the Union. The 14th of June continued to be remembered as the date the flag was adopted, until finally, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation establishing the date as Flag Day. While Flag Day has never been an official federal holiday, its observance can be officially proclaimed by a sitting president at will. Pennsylvania became the first state to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday in 1937, beginning in the town of Rennerdale.

The modern, 50-star flag has its origins in the late 1950s, when Alaska and Hawaii were being considered for statehood. Over 1,500 designs were submitted to President Eisenhower; the one that received the most publicity was created by a 17-year-old student named Robert G. Heft. Created in 1958 as part of a school project, the design initially received a B-, with Heft’s teacher considering the five rows of six stars alternating with four rows of five to be unoriginal. Heft got his teacher to agree that if the flag were accepted by Congress, his grade would be reconsidered. By the next year, Heft’s design was chosen by presidential proclamation to be the new national standard and Heft’s teacher, true to his word, changed his grade to an A.

During the week of Flag Day, known as National Flag Week, the flag is traditionally displayed on all government buildings, and many towns or organizations hold parades in honor of the flag’s adoption. Though many places claim to house the oldest parade, with many running continually for decades, one of the strongest candidates is that of Fairfield, Washington, which has held a parade for Flag Day annually since 1909/10, allegedly missing only 1918. In Washington, D.C., Flag Day is celebrated heavily throughout the city, especially in the seventh and eighth wards, where people often slow-smoke meats and vegetables.

Flag Day is one of many days Americans take to display their flags, show their patriotism and celebrate their national history.


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