Flag Day was proclaimed to be June 14 by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The date was chosen to commemorate that on June14, 1777, a flag with stars and stripes was selected as the symbol of the United States of America. The 1777 resolution stated that the flag should have “thirteen stripes alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
For a time, the founders foresaw adding stripes and stars as new states were added. In 1791 Vermont was added, followed by Kentucky in 1792. In 1794, it was proclaimed that the new flag would have 15 stripes and 15 stars. This is the design that is used for our most famous flag, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (See below.) It was also the flag carried by the Corps of Discovery as Lewis and Clark ventured West. (See Bear Cubs at the White House and Sacagawea.)
As states were added, they realized that adding both stripes and stars was problematic. The added stripes would make future flags very unwieldy. In 1818, the decision was made to return to the original thirteen stripes (representing the original colonies) and represent new states by adding new stars.
The Flag with Fifty States
Our current flag—with fifty states—dates to 1959 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Both Alaska and Hawaii became states at that time.
Public input provided the design of the current flag. Thousands of suggestions were mailed to the White House with ideas as to how to place the fifty stars. Some teachers assigned students to create a workable design. A 17-year-old student in Lancaster, Ohio, was one of three people who submitted the idea of alternate rows of five and six stars.
Student Robert G. Heft (1941-2009) got the edge on the other two entrants because he actually stitched a sample flag. He took his family’s 48-star flag and stitched in new blue fabric. He then cut out 100 white stars from iron-on fabric and placed the stars on both sides of the blue field. Heft created a full example of how the flag would look, and this is the design we know today.
Six flags have been planted on the moon. Five are still waving. The flag that has fallen is the first, the one placed by Neil Armstrong in 1969.
And a Few Facts about the Star-Spangled Banner
The flag we know as the Star-Spangled Banner is the flag that flew over Fort McHenry, Maryland, during the War of 1812. Mary Pickersgill made it at the request of Colonel George Armistead who asked for a flag “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it at a distance.” Pickersgill also made a second smaller flag that measured 17 by 25 feet. It was to be used during inclement weather to protect the over-sized garrison flag from getting saturated.
Colonel George Armstead and his troops successfully defended Fort McHenry against the British in 25 hours of fierce fighting in what is known as the Battle of Baltimore. It rained during much of the fighting, so the storm flag (17 feet by 25 feet) is thought to have been flown during most of the battle. But toward dawn on September 14, 1814, Armistead had the Great Garrison Flag (the one that measured 30 by 42 feet), raised above the fort to show that they had outlasted the British attack.
The flag observed by Francis Scott Key at “dawn’s early light” is thought to have been the over-sized garrison flag. As noted above, this flag had 15 stripes and 15 stars, since the flag of that day represented the new states with both stars and stripes. (See above.)
Armistead remained commander at Fort McHenry until his death in 1818, and when he died, the flag passed to his wife and then to his daughter, Georgiana Armistead Appleton.
Where was the Flag During the Civil War?
When the Civil War began, Georgiana Appleton is thought to have hidden the flag within her home. She still lived in Maryland (a slave state that did not secede from the Union), but her sentiments lay with the Confederacy. Georgiana’s daughter told a reporter that the flag was not in Maryland during the war; that it was sent to England at that time. Neither story can be verified.
In 1912, Georgiana Appleton’s son, Eben, presented the flag to the Smithsonian as a permanent gift. He stipulated that the flag should never be loaned elsewhere as the family wanted it to be available to be seen by all American citizens.
The Star-Spangled Banner has remained at the Smithsonian except for one occasion. After the attack at Pearl Harbor, Americans feared another assault on the homeland. Plans were made to send some of the Smithsonian’s most precious objects out of Washington for safekeeping. Many items including the flag were crated and sent to a storage facility in Luray, Virginia.
In the 1990s, the curators at the Smithsonian determined that the flag required more conservation if it was to continue to be displayed. In 1994, the flag was removed for cleaning and mending. To read about the work that was done, click here. https://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/preservation-project.aspx (During certain parts of the conservation, visitors could see the work underway.)
The Flag Today
The flag is now on permanent at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The whereabouts of the second smaller flag created as a storm flag by Mary Pickersgill is not known.
To read the full story of the Star Spangled Banner, and when and how it was composed, read “Francis Scott Key: How the Star Spangled Banner Came to be Written.”