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The U.S. Flag: legends, facts and protocols

In 1923 the National Flag Code was adopted by the National Flag Conference to set forth guidelines for use of the flag.

Who designed the American flag?

On Saturday, June 14, 1777, Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the first official national flag of the United States.

According to popular legend, the first American flag was made by Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress who was acquainted with George Washington, leader of the Continental Army, and other influential Philadelphians. Although she purportedly sewed the first flag in 1776, Ross wasn’t credited with this work during her lifetime. In fact, her story was first publicly relayed to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania nearly a century later, in 1870, by her grandson, William Canby. According to Canby, Ross had often recounted a visit she had received in late May or early June of 1776 from three men: General George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross. During this meeting, she was allegedly presented with a sketch of a flag that featured 13 red and white stripes and 13 six-pointed stars, and was asked if she could create a flag to match the proposed design.  Ross agreed, but suggested a couple of changes, including arranging the stars in a circle and reducing the points on each star to five instead of six. There is no written documentation to confirm Ross’ involvement with the first flag.

Jennie Brown's painting. Examining the Flag

Jennie Brown’s painting. Examining the Flag

 

The "Betsy Ross" flag. The Flag Resolution did not specify the arrangement of the stars nor the specific proportions of the flag. So many 13-star flags were used.

The “Betsy Ross” flag. The Flag Resolution did not specify the arrangement of the stars nor the specific proportions of the flag. So many 13-star flags were used.

The resolution creating the flag came from the Continental Marine Committee.  Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence,  became a member of the committee in 1776, and is often given credit for the Betsy Ross design, as well as other 13-star arrangements. At the time of the flag’s adoption, he was the Chairman of the Navy Board, which was under the Marine Committee. Today, he would be known as the Secretary of the Navy. Hopkinson is recognized as the designer of the flag of the United States, and the journals of the Continental Congress support this. In 1780, Hopkinson sought payment from the Board of Admiralty for his design of the “flag of the United States of America.” However, his petition for payment was denied on the grounds that “he was not the only one consulted” on the design.

A representation of the flag believed to have been designed by Francis Hopkinson.

A representation of the flag believed to have been designed by Francis Hopkinson.

 

Robert G. “Bob” Heft (January 19, 1941 – December 12, 2009), born in Saginaw, Michigan, was the designer of the current American 50-star flag as well as a designer of a submitted 51-star flag proposal.

The current 50 star flag, designed by Robert Heft.

The current 50 star flag, designed by Robert Heft.

 

Why is the Flag red, white and blue?

“The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flagof the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence,Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”

 

How did the flag receive its “Old Glory” nickname?

Old Glory is a common nickname for the flag of the United States, bestowed by William Driver, an early nineteenth-century American sea captain.

However, it also refers specifically to the 17 ft. by 10 ft. flag owned by Driver, which has become one of the U.S.’s most treasured historical artifacts.  The flag was sewn by Driver’s mother and other women of Salem, Massachusetts, and presented as a gift. The captain was very pleased with his gift, and always kept it with him. By most accounts, he first hailed the flag as “Old Glory,” when he left harbor for a trip around the world in 1831-1832, as commander of the whaling vessel Charles Doggett. As a humanitarian gesture during the voyage, Captain Driver and his crew transported the descendants of the Bounty Mutineers from Tahiti back to their home on Pitcairn Island, and the ship and its flag received much notoriety as a result of this deed.

William Driver's "Old Glory" is now in the Smithsonian.

William Driver’s “Old Glory” is now in the Smithsonian.

Driver retired to Nashville in 1837, taking his treasured flag from his sea days with him. By the time the Civil War erupted, most everyone in and around Nashville recognized Captain Driver’s “Old Glory.” When Tennesee seceded from the Union, Rebels were determined to destroy his flag, but repeated searches revealed no trace of the hated banner, which had been stitched inside of a blanket for safe keeping. Then on February 25th, 1862, Union forces captured Nashville and raised the American flag over the capital. Driver took “Old Glory” from hiding and flew her over the capitol building. The flag is in the Smithsonian, but its age and fragility prohibit it being flown.

What is the protocol for flying the flag? A partial list includes:

  • The flag should be lighted at all times, either by the sun of by an appropriate light source.
  • The flag should only be flown in fair weather, unless it is designed for use in inclement weather.
  • The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It may be flown upside down only as a signal of distress.
  • The flag should not be used for decoration in general. Special bunting may be used, with the blue stripe on top.
  • The flag should  never be used for advertising purposes. It should not be reproduced in any manner for use on items intended to be discarded after temporary use.
  • When the flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object. It should be folded neatly and ceremoniously for storage.
  • A flag to be flown at half-staff should be hoist to the peak for an instant, then lowered half way between the top and bottom of the staff.
Proper flag folding procedure.

Proper flag folding procedure.

A properly folded American Flag.

A properly folded American Flag.

 When is the flag flown at half-staff?

  • For 30 days following the death of the president or a former president
  • For 10 days following the death of the vice president, the chief justice or a retired chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
  • From the day of death until the burial of associate justices of the Supreme Court, a secretary of an executive or military department, a former vice president, or the governor of a state, territory or possession.
  • On the day of death and the day following for a member of Congress
  • On Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.

How is the flag to be disposed of?

According to the US Flag Code, when a flag is no longer suitable for use it should be disposed of in a dignified manner, preferably by burning.

  • The flag should be folded properly in its customary manner.
  • A large enough fire to completely consume the flag should be prepared.
  • Place the flag on the fire.
  • Come to attention, salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and have a brief period of silence.
  • Once the flag is consumed, extinguish the fire and bury the ashes.

If you prefer not to burn your flag, you may contact a local organization that collects old flags, such as the Boy Scouts of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion. These groups, and others, have their own form of flag retirement services.

 

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