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Flag of the United States of America
Flag of the United States of America
Names The American flag,
Use National flag and ensign
Proportion 10:19
Adopted
  • December 3, 1775
    (Grand Union Flag)
  • June 14, 1777
    (13-star version)
  • July 4, 1960
    (current 50-star version)
Design Thirteen horizontal stripes alternating red and white; in the canton, 50 white stars of alternating numbers of six and five per horizontal row on a blue field
Designed by Robert G. Heft (50-star version)
US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross
The original "Betsy Ross" flag.

The flag of the United States of America is a national flag. It represents the freedom of the United States.

The flag of the United States has 7 red stripes and 6 white stripes. These 13 stripes stand for the original thirteen colonies. The flag also has a blue canton, a rectangle in the top left corner. The canton has one white star for every state.

When a new state joins the United States a new flag is made with an extra star. The new flag is first flown on the "4th of July", Independence Day.

The last states to join so far the United States were Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. Alaska joined on 3 January 1959, so the new flag with 49 stars was used from 4 July 1959. Hawaii joined on 21 August 1959 so the flag with 50 stars that is used today was not flown until 4 July 1960.

The colors in the flag are red, white and blue. The colors have no special meaning in the flag, but in the coat of arms white stands for purity and innocence, red for bravery and strength and blue for watchfulness, perseverance and justice.

The flag is also often called the Stars and Stripes, the Star-Spangled Banner, or Old Glory. The national anthem of the United States both reference the flag.

Design

  • 13 horizontal (meaning from side to side, not top to bottom) red and white stripes, representing the original 13 states.
  • 50 white stars on a blue rectangle in the top-left, representing the current 50 U.S. states.

Display and use

Flickr - The U.S. Army - Young patriot
A boy holds an American flag during the 2009 National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C.

The flag is customarily flown year-round at most public buildings, and it is not unusual to find private houses flying full-size (3 by 5 feet (0.91 by 1.52 m)) flags. Some private use is year-round, but becomes widespread on civic holidays like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Presidents' Day, Flag Day, and on Independence Day. On Memorial Day it is common to place small flags by war memorials and next to the graves of U.S. war veterans. Also on Memorial Day it is common to fly the flag at half staff, until noon, in remembrance of those who lost their lives fighting in U.S. wars.

Flag etiquette

Vertical United States Flag
The proper stationary vertical display. The canton (blue box of stars) should always be in the upper-left corner.

The United States Flag Code outlines certain guidelines for the use, display, and disposal of the flag. For example, the flag should never be dipped to any person or thing, unless it is the ensign responding to a salute from a ship of a foreign nation. This tradition may come from the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, where countries were asked to dip their flag to King Edward VII: the American flag bearer did not. Team captain Martin Sheridan is famously quoted as saying "this flag dips to no earthly king", though the true provenance of this quotation is unclear.

Tattered Flag
A tattered flag at Spokane Valley Police Headquarters, Spokane, Washington

The flag should never be allowed to touch the ground and, if flown at night, must be illuminated. If the edges become tattered through wear, the flag should be repaired or replaced. When a flag is so tattered that it can no longer serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. The American Legion and other organizations regularly conduct flag retirement ceremonies, often on Flag Day, June 14. (The Boy Scouts of America recommends that modern nylon or polyester flags be recycled instead of burned, due to hazardous gases being produced when such materials are burned.)

The Flag Code prohibits using the flag "for any advertising purpose" and also states that the flag "should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use". Both of these codes are generally ignored, almost always without comment.

Section 8, entitled Respect For Flag states in part: "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery", and "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform". Section 3 of the Flag Code defines "the flag" as anything "by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag of the United States of America".

An additional part of Section 8 Respect For Flag, that is frequently violated at sporting events is part (c) "The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free."

Although the Flag Code is U.S. federal law, there is no penalty for a private citizen or group failing to comply with the Flag Code and it is not widely enforced—indeed, punitive enforcement would conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Passage of the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment would overrule legal precedent that has been established.

Display on vehicles

When the flag is affixed to the right side of a vehicle of any kind (e.g.: cars, boats, planes, any physical object that moves), it should be oriented so that the canton is towards the front of the vehicle, as if the flag were streaming backwards from its hoist as the vehicle moves forward. Therefore, U.S. flag decals on the right sides of vehicles may appear to be reversed, with the union to the observer's right instead of left as more commonly seen.

The flag has been displayed on every U.S. spacecraft designed for manned flight, including Mercury, Gemini, Apollo Command/Service Module, Apollo Lunar Module, and the Space Shuttle. The flag also appeared on the S-IC first stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle used for Apollo. But since Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were launched and landed vertically and were not capable of horizontal atmospheric flight as the Space Shuttle did on its landing approach, the "streaming" convention was not followed and these flags were oriented with the stripes running horizontally, perpendicular to the direction of flight.

Display on uniforms

Apollo1-Crew 01
The crew of Apollo 1 wore their flags on the right shoulder, unlike all other US astronaut flight crews
Neil Armstrong pose
Flag of the United States on American astronaut Neil Armstrong's space suit
Buzz salutes the U.S. Flag
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the United States flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.

On some U.S. military uniforms, flag patches are worn on the right shoulder, following the vehicle convention with the union toward the front. This rule dates back to the Army's early history, when both mounted cavalry and infantry units would designate a standard bearer, who carried the Colors into battle. As he charged, his forward motion caused the flag to stream back. Since the Stars and Stripes are mounted with the canton closest to the pole, that section stayed to the right, while the stripes flew to the left. Several US military uniforms, such as flight suits worn by members of the United States Air Force and Navy, have the flag patch on the left shoulder.

Other organizations that wear flag patches on their uniforms can have the flag facing in either direction. The congressional charter of the Boy Scouts of America stipulates that the uniforms should not imitate U.S. military uniforms; consequently, the flags are displayed on the right shoulder with the stripes facing front, the reverse of the military style. Law enforcement officers often wear a small flag patch, either on a shoulder, or above a shirt pocket.

Every U.S. astronaut since the crew of Gemini 4 has worn the flag on the left shoulder of his or her space suit, with the exception of the crew of Apollo 1, whose flags were worn on the right shoulder. In this case, the canton was on the left.

Postage stamps

US Flags green
Flags depicted on U.S. postage stamp issues

The flag did not appear on U.S. postal stamp issues until the Battle of White Plains Issue was released in 1926, depicting the flag with a circle of 13 stars. The 48-star flag first appeared on the General Casimir Pulaski issue of 1931, though in a small monochrome depiction. The first U.S. postage stamp to feature the flag as the sole subject was issued July 4, 1957, Scott catalog number 1094. Since that time the flag has frequently appeared on U.S. stamps.

Display in museums

In 1907 Eben Appleton, New York stockbroker and grandson of Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead (the commander of Fort McHenry during the 1814 bombardment) loaned the Star Spangled Banner Flag to the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1912 he converted the loan to a gift. Appleton donated the flag with the wish that it would always be on view to the public. In 1994, the National Museum of American History determined that the Star Spangled Banner Flag required further conservation treatment to remain on public display. In 1998 teams of museum conservators, curators, and other specialists helped move the flag from its home in the Museum's Flag Hall into a new conservation laboratory. Following the reopening of the National Museum of American History on November 21, 2008, the flag is now on display in a special exhibition, "The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem," where it rests at a 10 degree angle in dim light for conservation purposes.

Places of continuous display

By presidential proclamation, acts of Congress, and custom, U.S. flags are displayed continuously at certain locations.

US Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Monument) near Washington DC
Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
  • At U.S. Customs and Border Protection Ports of Entry that are continuously open.
  • A Civil War era flag (for the year 1863) flies above Pennsylvania Hall (Old Dorm) at Gettysburg College. This building, occupied by both sides at various points of the Battle of Gettysburg, served as a lookout and battlefield hospital.
  • Grounds of the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge NHP, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
  • By custom, at the Maryland home, birthplace, and grave of Francis Scott Key; at the Worcester, Massachusetts war memorial; at the plaza in Taos, New Mexico (since 1861); at the United States Capitol (since 1918); and at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota.
  • Newark Liberty International Airport's Terminal A, Gate 17 and Boston Logan Airport's Terminal B, Gate 32 and Terminal C, Gate 19 in memoriam of the events of September 11, 2001.
  • Slover Mountain (Colton Liberty Flag), in Colton, California. July 4, 1917, to circa 1952 & 1997 to 2012.
  • At the ceremonial South Pole as one of the 12 flags representing the signatory countries of the original Antarctic Treaty.
  • On the Moon: six manned missions successfully landed at various locations and each had a flag raised at the site. Exhaust gases when the Ascent Stage launched to return the astronauts to their Command Module Columbia for return to Earth blew over the flag the Apollo 11 mission had placed.

Particular days for display

Americanflags
Flags covering the National Mall
NewYorkStockExchangeWallStreetManhattan
The New York Stock Exchange at Christmas time.

The flag should especially be displayed at full staff on the following days:

  • January: 1 (New Year's Day), third Monday of the month (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), and 20 (Inauguration Day, once every four years, which, by tradition, is postponed to the 21st if the 20th falls on a Sunday)
  • February: 12 (Lincoln's birthday) and the third Monday (legally known as Washington's Birthday but more often called Presidents' Day)
  • March–April: Easter Sunday (date varies)
  • May: Second Sunday (Mothers Day), third Saturday (Armed Forces Day), and last Monday (Memorial Day; half-staff until noon)
  • June: 14 (Flag Day), third Sunday (Fathers Day)
  • July: 4 (Independence Day) and 27 (National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day)
  • September: First Monday (Labor Day), 17 (Constitution Day), and last Sunday (Gold Star Mother's Day)
  • October: Second Monday (Columbus Day) and 27 (Navy Day)
  • November: 11 (Veterans Day) and fourth Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)
  • December: 25 (Christmas Day)
  • and such other days as may be proclaimed by the President of the United States; the birthdays of states (date of admission); and on state holidays.

History

1885 History of US flags med
First US flags

The flag has been changed 26 times since the new, 13-state union adopted it. The 48-star version went unchanged for 47 years, until the 50-star version became official on July 4, 1960 (the first July 4 following Hawaii's admission to the union on August 21, 1959); the 47-year-record of the 48-star version was the longest time the flag went unmodified until July 4, 2007, when the current 50-star version of the Flag of the United States broke the record.

First flag

Grand Union Flag
Grand Union Flag (Continental Colors)
Flag of the British East India Company (1707)
Flag of the British East India Company, 1707–1801

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, the United States had no official national flag. The Grand Union Flag has historically been referred to as the "First National Flag"; although it has never had any official status, it was used throughout the American Revolutionary War by George Washington and formed the basis for the design of the first official U.S. flag. The origins of the design are unclear. It closely resembles the British East India Company (BEIC) flag of the same era, and an argument dating to Sir Charles Fawcett in 1937 holds that the BEIC flag indeed inspired the design. However, the BEIC flag could have from 9 to 13 stripes, and was not allowed to be flown outside the Indian Ocean. Both flags could have been easily constructed by adding white stripes to a British Red Ensign, a common flag throughout Britain and its colonies.

COA George Washington
Coat of arms of George Washington

Another theory holds that the red-and-white stripe—and later, stars-and-stripes—motif of the flag may have been based on the Washington family coat-of-arms, which consisted of a shield "argent, two bars gules, above, three mullets gules" (a white shield with two red bars below three red stars). However, there is no proof that this is true and the theory is widely discredited. Washington was not involved with the committee that designed the flag in 1777, and in heraldic terms there is very little connection between the two designs. Moreover, the sequence by which the flag evolved belies any influence of the Washington arms. More likely it was based on a flag of the Sons of Liberty, one of which consisted of 13 red and white alternating horizontal stripes.

The Flag Resolution of 1777

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross
13-star "Betsy Ross" flag

On June 14, 1777, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: "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." Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. A false tradition holds that the new flag was first hoisted in June 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment.

The 1777 resolution was probably meant to define a naval ensign, rather than a national flag. It appears between other resolutions from the Marine Committee. On May 10, 1779, Secretary of the Board of War Richard Peters, Jr. expressed concern "it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the United States."

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement, number of points, nor orientation for the stars. The pictured flag shows 13 outwardly-oriented five-pointed stars arranged in a circle, the so-called Betsy Ross flag. Although the Betsy Ross legend is not taken seriously by many historians, the design itself is the oldest version of any U.S. flag known to exist; it is not the oldest surviving flag artifact in cloth form, but its likeness appears on older physical relics, namely, the contemporary battlefield paintings by John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale. They depict the circular star arrangement, and thus provide the first know historical documentation on the flag's appearance. Popular designs at the time were varied and most were individually crafted rather than mass-produced. Other examples of 13-star arrangements can be found on the Francis Hopkinson flag, the Cowpens flag, and the Brandywine flag. Given the scant archaeological and written evidence, it is unknown which design was the most popular at that time.

Guilford Courthouse Flag
Guilford Court House Flag

Despite the 1777 resolution, a number of flags only loosely based on the prescribed design were used in the early years of American independence. One example may have been the Guilford Court House Flag, traditionally believed to have been carried by the American troops at the Battle of Guilford Court House in 1781.

The origin of the stars and stripes design cannot be fully documented. A popular story credits Betsy Ross for sewing the first flag from a pencil sketch by George Washington who personally commissioned her for the job. However, no evidence for this theory exists beyond Ross' descendants' much later recollections of what she told her family. Another woman, Rebecca Young, has also been credited as having made the first flag by later generations of her family. Rebecca Young's daughter was Mary Pickersgill, who made the Star Spangled Banner Flag.

It is likely that Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag while he was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department, sometime between his appointment to that position in November 1776 and the time that the flag resolution was adopted in June 1777. This contradicts the Betsy Ross legend, which suggests that she sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag by request of the government in the Spring of 1776. Hopkinson was the only person to have made such a claim during his own lifetime, when he sent a bill to Congress for his work. He asked for a "Quarter Cask of the Public Wine" as payment initially. The payment was not made, however, because it was determined he had already received a salary as a member of Congress, and he was not the only person to have contributed to the design. It should be noted that no one else contested his claim at the time.

Later flag acts

US flag 15 stars
15-star, 15-stripe "Star-Spangled Banner" flag
US flag 48 stars
48-star flag, is the second longest in use (1912–1959).
Amflagurban
A subdued-color American flag patch, as used by the U.S. Military.

In 1795, the number of stars and stripes was increased from 13 to 15 (to reflect the entry of Vermont and Kentucky as states of the union). For a time the flag was not changed when subsequent states were admitted, probably because it was thought that this would cause too much clutter. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," now the national anthem.

On April 4, 1818, a plan was passed by Congress at the suggestion of U.S. Naval Captain Samuel C. Reid in which the flag was changed to have 20 stars, with a new star to be added when each new state was admitted, but the number of stripes would remain at 13 to honor the original colonies. The act specified that new flag designs should become official on the first July 4 (Independence Day) following admission of one or more new states. The most recent change, from 49 stars to 50, occurred in 1960 when the present design was chosen, after Hawaii gained statehood in August 1959. Before that, the admission of Alaska in January 1959 prompted the debut of a short-lived 49-star flag.

As of July 4, 2007, the 50-star flag has become the longest rendition in use.

Historical progression of designs

In the following table depicting the 28 various designs of the United States flag, the star patterns for the flags are merely the usual patterns, often associated with the United States Navy. Canton designs, prior to the proclamation of the 48-star flag by President William Howard Taft on October 29, 1912, had no official arrangement of the stars. Furthermore, the exact colors of the flag were not standardized until 1934.

No. of
Stars
No. of
Stripes
Design States Represented
by New Stars
Dates in Use Duration
0 13 Grand Union Flag.svg N/A December 3, 1775–June 14, 1777 1 year
(18 months)
13 13 US flag 13 stars.svg Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey,
Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts,
Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire,
Virginia, New York, North Carolina,
Rhode Island
June 14, 1777–May 1, 1795 18 years
(215 months)
15 15 US flag 15 stars.svg Kentucky, Vermont May 1, 1795–July 3, 1818 23 years
(278 months)
20 13 US flag 20 stars.svg Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi,
Ohio, Tennessee
July 4, 1818–July 3, 1819 1 year
(12 months)
21 13 US flag 21 stars.svg Illinois July 4, 1819–July 3, 1820 1 year
(12 months)
23 13 US flag 23 stars.svg Alabama, Maine July 4, 1820–July 3, 1822 2 years
(24 months)
24 13 US flag 24 stars.svg Missouri July 4, 1822–July 3, 1836 14 years
(168 months)
25 13 US flag 25 stars.svg Arkansas July 4, 1836–July 3, 1837 1 year
(12 months)
26 13 US flag 26 stars.svg Michigan July 4, 1837–July 3, 1845 8 years
(96 months)
27 13 US flag 27 stars.svg Florida July 4, 1845–July 3, 1846 1 year
(12 months)
28 13 US flag 28 stars.svg Texas July 4, 1846–July 3, 1847 1 year
(12 months)
29 13 US flag 29 stars.svg Iowa July 4, 1847–July 3, 1848 1 year
(12 months)
30 13 US flag 30 stars.svg Wisconsin July 4, 1848–July 3, 1851 3 years
(36 months)
31 13 US flag 31 stars.svg California July 4, 1851–July 3, 1858 7 years
(84 months)
32 13 US flag 32 stars.svg Minnesota July 4, 1858–July 3, 1859 1 year
(12 months)
33 13 US flag 33 stars.svg Oregon July 4, 1859–July 3, 1861 2 years
(24 months)
34 13 US flag 34 stars.svg Kansas July 4, 1861–July 3, 1863 2 years
(24 months)
35 13 US flag 35 stars.svg West Virginia July 4, 1863–July 3, 1865 2 years
(24 months)
36 13 US flag 36 stars.svg Nevada July 4, 1865–July 3, 1867 2 years
(24 months)
37 13 US flag 37 stars.svg Nebraska July 4, 1867–July 3, 1877 10 years
(120 months)
38 13 US flag 38 stars.svg Colorado July 4, 1877–July 3, 1890 13 years
(156 months)
43 13 US flag 43 stars.svg Idaho, Montana, North Dakota,
South Dakota, Washington
July 4, 1890–July 3, 1891 1 year
(12 months)
44 13 US flag 44 stars.svg Wyoming July 4, 1891–July 3, 1896 5 years
(60 months)
45 13 US flag 45 stars.svg Utah July 4, 1896–July 3, 1908 12 years
(144 months)
46 13 US flag 46 stars.svg Oklahoma July 4, 1908–July 3, 1912 4 years
(48 months)
48 13 US flag 48 stars.svg Arizona, New Mexico July 4, 1912–July 3, 1959 47 years
(564 months)
49 13 US flag 49 stars.svg Alaska July 4, 1959–July 3, 1960 1 year
(12 months)
50 13 Flag of the United States.svg Hawaii July 4, 1960–present 60 years
(726 months)
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