We salute it, sing songs to it and many of us pledge our allegiance to it daily, and the U.S. government encourages all Americans to pause and pay tribute to the flag on its official holiday, June 14. In honor of the this year’s Flag Day, check out some things you should know about the Stars and Stripes.
On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, passed the Flag Act of 1777, a resolution creating an official flag for a new nation still struggling to gain its independence from Britain. It stated, in part, that America’s flag “…be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” And the design pretty much stayed that way for nearly two decades. The first significant change came in January 1794, when two stars and two stripes were added to reflect the recent admissions of Kentucky and Vermont to the Union. It was this 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that later became known as the Star-Spangled Banner, after seeing it fly over Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. In 1818, another design went into effect, permanently setting the number of stripes at 13 (in honor of the original colonies) and allowing for new stars to be added ceremonially each July 4 should a new state be admitted.
While the 1777 resolution establishing a national flag was the impetus for the national holiday known as Flag Day, that date also holds great significance for the U.S. Army. Two years earlier, just weeks after the Battles of Lexington and Concord kicked off the American Revolution, the Congress formally authorized the enlistment of soldiers to fight in what became known as the Continental Army. So this Friday, remember to wish the U.S. Army a happy 238th birthday.
It took more than a century after the creation of America’s flag for anyone to suggest a holiday to honor it. In 1885, a Wisconsin grade school teacher named Bernard Cigrand held what’s believed to be the first recognized Flag Day, which began a lifelong quest to establish a formal holiday. Woodrow Wilson issued a presidential proclamation calling for a June 14 commemoration in 1916, but it wasn’t until 1949, 16 years after the death of the Cigrand, the “father of Flag Day,” that Congress passed legislation as a national holiday. It is not, however, a federal holiday. In fact, it’s only an official holiday in any capacity in one state. Perhaps fittingly, it’s Pennsylvania, where the flag was officially created and legend holds (though it’s wholly unsubstantiated) that local seamstress Betsy Ross sewed the original flag.
More than 620,000 Americans lost their life during the Civil War, but only two of those fatalities occurred during the first battle of the war. When Confederate forces began a bombardment of Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, Union commander Major Robert Anderson held out for more than 34 hours before finally surrendering the fort. One of Anderson’s conditions for surrendering was that his men be allowed to observe a 100-gun salute as the American flag was lowered from the fort. During the ceremony, a nearby pile of rifle cartridges exploded, killing two soldiers (the first fatalities of the war) and injuring four others. Anderson carried the flag, badly damaged during the bombardment, to the north where it was frequently displayed to boost morale. Four years to the day after Anderson’s surrender, he once again raised the flag over Sumter after the Union had recaptured the fort. Just a few hours later, Abraham Lincoln would be fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.
It’s the Textile Color Card Association of the United States (TCCA) that creates the palate of colors used for both private and public institutions, and the U.S. Army that issues a reference guide of acceptable shades to be used in local, state and national flags. So if you’re trying to produce a truly authentic American flag, you’ll need to use the exact shades of white, “Old Glory Red” and “Old Glory Blue,” specified in the guide. Although mass-market flag manufacturers have been known to fudge a bit and use the more-easily processed Pantone Matching Shades of Dark Red (193 C) and Navy Blue (281 C).
While the battle over perceived desecration of the flag remains a hot button issue today, some of the first anti-desecration measures had little to do with flag burning or other destructive measures. In fact, 19th century lawmakers were more concerned with the already rampant use of the flag as a promotional tool by advertisers, which they considered treating the banner with “contempt.” Many of the first statues passed by state and local governments aimed to restrict use of the flag’s image on commercial products. In 1907, the Supreme Court upheld these laws in the case of Halter v. Nebraska, and many of them remain on the books today.