From atop flagpoles in front of every school to the rear window of cousin Jimmy’s 1987 Chevy Silverado, the flag of the United States of America is perhaps the most recognizable part of the American experience. We grow up seeing the flag in every classroom, in front of every state building, on our t-shirts, hats, and other articles of clothing—not to mention the Fourth of July, the celebration of America’s birthday, which is steadily ranked in America’s top five favorite holidays. Many Americans have no idea the history behind the flag and its earlier incarnations.
The Grand Union Flag (1775-1777)
The first official flag of the United States of America was the Grand Union flag. With the flag of Great Britain in its canton (itself consisting of the English flag or St. George’s cross, and the Scottish flag or St. Andrew’s cross) and thirteen alternating red and white stripes representing the thirteen colonies making up the states that were united at the time.
Flag of the Resolution (1777-1795)
On the fourteenth of June 1777, in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress passed what would become known as “the flag resolution,” which stated “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.” The new resolution did not specify exactly what the star’s pattern would be—just that it was to be a new constellation.
Betsy Ross Flag (1792-1795)
A still popular variant of the flag of the resolution, this version placed the white stars in a circle on a blue field in the canton. Although referred to as “the Betsy Ross Flag,” it is heavily debated among experts if she had anything to do with the creation of the flag.
Star-Spangled Banner (1795-1818)
“Oh, say can you see, By the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed, At the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched, Were so gallantly streaming. And the rocket’s red glare, The bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night,
That our flag was still there. Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave? For the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” On September 13th, 1814 Francis Scott Key wrote what would become known as the American National Anthem, a poem called “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after negotiating the release of a friend from the British who, as a condition to his friend’s release, refused to let them leave the ship that his friend had been being held on until after the assault on fort McHenry had finished.
Once the smoke from the battle cleared, the Garrison flag above the fort continued to wave. While the official “Star-Spangled Banner” flag that we hear about in the American National Anthem was not sewn until 1813, it was the largest battle flag ever to be flown at the time. It had been based on a popular design used since the annexation of Vermont and Kentucky.
Growing Nation (1818-present)
As the country grew, there was another star added for each state that joined the union. Until 1912, the star pattern was not officially specified. There are a few variant patterns. They ranged from being in circle patterns to star patterns and, of course, the more traditional square patterns of today. In 1934 the exact hues of the flag’s colors were officially decided.
Finally, in 1959, Hawaii joined the union and our current flag design was adopted. There are already designs for possible future versions of the flag, including stars for Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, and even one proposed one that has over 90 stars.