SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. – Flag Day was first observed on June 14, 1877, the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes, as the first flag was called. Congress instructed that the flag be flown from all public buildings to recognize the anniversary.
In 1885, a schoolteacher in Fredonia, Wis., B. J. Cigrand, had students observe June 14th, the 108th anniversary of official adoption of the Stars and Stripes, as “Flag Birthday.” Similar efforts cropped up around the country.
President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation on May 30, 1916 establishing June 14th as Flag Day, but it wasn’t an officially designated national day of observance until President Harry Truman signed an Act of Congress on Aug. 3, 1949.
And what about the flag we honor on June 14th? We all know Betsy Ross, a seamstress in Philadelphia, designed the American flag, right? Did she? According to many accounts including one by Betsy herself, Gen. George Washington brought her a sketch of a flag for the Continental Army in early June 1776. Unfortunately, there is no evidence proving this.
In 1870, William J. Canby, one of Betsy Ross’ grandsons, wrote an account of his grandmother’s contribution. Paintings showing Betsy Ross sewing the flag added weight to the story. However, there are no documents, no mention in diaries, letters, or congressional minutes that support the claim.
While it’s still a great story, it’s probably not true. It is more likely that Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the first U.S. flag.
The first flag Americans used, the “Grand Union Flag” was an adaptation of the British Red Ensign--a red flag with the Union Jack--in the top left hand quadrant or canton. The Union Jack was the Cross of St. George--red cross on a white background--superimposed on the Cross of St. Andrews--a diagonal white cross on a blue background.
The “Grand Union Flag” had 13 red and white stripes and the Union Jack in the top left hand canton. The design changed in 1777 when, as legend has it, Betsy Ross replaced the Union Jack with a circle of 13 stars on a blue background. This design was known as the “Stars and Stripes.”
After the War of Independence, a star and stripe were added to the flag with every new state until 1795.
The next redesign of the flag came in 1818. Congress decided the number of stripes would remain at 13 and new stars would be added as states joined the Union. The last star was added on July 4, 1960 after Hawaii became a state in 1959.
Over the years the American flag has had many names--Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, Star Spangled Banner. Whatever it is called, the American flag is a powerful symbol of democracy and freedom--long may it wave.
For the vexillophiles (flag collectors) out there, see www.usflag.org and www.royal.gov.uk.
- USTRANSCOM -
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