The American flag has been flying—in one form or another—for nearly 250 years. Over the course of nearly two centuries, three official Flag Acts, and the admission of 37 states to the union, dozens of different designs have flown over the country throughout various parts of our history. During this time, the flag has come to mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. How did it all begin, though? Explore the history of the American flag and how it came to be with this overview.
America has seen a lot of variations of the flag over the years, but the original is the most unique variation. Before the colonies declared independence from Great Britain, the Grand Union flag represented the unity of the 13 colonies beneath British rule. Like our current flag, this design consisted of 13 alternating red and white stripes to represent the colonies. Instead of white stars on a blue field, however, the corner of the flag bore a Union Jack.
The Grand Union flag reflected the colonies’ original fight to gain representation in British parliament. It also served as a compromise between the colonists who desired independence and those who wished for a compromise with the crown.
Congress declared independence from Britain in 1776, but the call for an original national flag didn’t come until nearly a year later. America’s first Flag Act passed on June 14, 1977. The act established the groundwork for America’s flag design: 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 stars on a blue field. The flag represented the 13 colonies, and the stars represented a new constellation—the newly independent country’s hope for its future.
There are contradicting records about who designed the original American flag, but one of the most popular potential designers is Betsy Ross. Ross was an upholsterer and flag maker for the Pennsylvania Navy. Many believe that she designed and made the original American flag featuring the 13 stars in a circular pattern. However, some speculate that the design itself comes from Frances Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
While we don’t have solid records to say for certain who designed the flag, the fact remains that this first flag of the Revolutionary Period is often called the Betsy Ross flag. Similarly, the circular star pattern is also known as the Betsy Ross Pattern, securing Ross’s name as a founding mother and legendary creator of the flag.
Congress’s first Flag Act only gave a brief description of what the flag should look like. Details such as the orientation of the stripes, the placement of the blue field, and the layout and number of points of the stars were still unclear. As a result, flag makers had some liberty with their designs. Variations such as different proportions and layouts appeared across the colonies. The designs of the stars were another big variable, with many flags portraying six-pointed stars.
The 13-star flag persisted throughout the Revolutionary War and in the years after. However, when Vermont and Kentucky became states in 1791 and 1792, respectively, Congress had to rethink the flag’s design.
Congress passed its second Flag Act in 1794. This act changed both the number of stars and the number of stripes to 15. The resulting flag became known as the Star-Spangled Banner, and it was this 15-starred and 15-striped flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” a poem which later became the lyrics to America’s national anthem.
New states joined the union in the following years, but there was no official act that addressed them. Even though some citizens designed and made flags to reflect the current number of states, those variations were never official American flags.
The country continued to grow before and especially after the War of 1812. With more states entering the union, Congress decided to pass a third and (so far) final Flag Act. This act declared that the flag should have only 13 stripes to represent the original 13 colonies. It also declared that the current flag was to have 20 stars to represent the current number of states, and that a new star should be added for every new state that enters the union. Thus, the modern design of the American flag was born.
While the third Flag Act established the design rules we use today, it still didn’t address certain design specifications. Proportions and details varied across the country. Namely, the layout of the stars and the number of points on each star could change from flag maker to flag maker.
A uniform design didn’t exist until President William Howard Taft signed an executive order clarifying certain details. The 1912 directive was a crucial moment in the history of the American flag and how it came to be. The order declared that the stars—representing 48 states at the time—should be arranged in six horizontal rows of eight stars. Each of the stars should have five points, with one point facing upward.
This executive order created the 48-star flag, which is the second-longest-flying flag in America’s history. The 48-star flag flew for 47 years and represented the country through both World Wars and eight presidencies.
When Alaska joined the union in January 1959, the new 49-state flag also followed President Taft’s executive order, with the small alteration of having seven rows of seven stars. This flag flew for a single year before Hawaii became a state.
With the admission of Hawaii into the union in 1959 came the 50-star flag we know today. The modern American flag first flew on July 4, 1960. Like the two versions before it, this flag follows President Taft’s executive order. It bears nine rows of stars—five with six stars alternating with four rows of five stars—staggered to form eleven columns. The 50-star flag has flown for over 60 years, making it the longest-used flag in the nation’s history.
From small-town families to CEOs of international companies, American citizens have been flying the American flag in one form or another for generations. Flags USA sells American-made American flags so that you too can partake in this tradition. With quality materials and passionate design, we help businesses and organizations find a lasting flag that they can proudly display on their property. Visit us today to learn more about our products and the fascinating history, etiquette, and meaning of the American flag.