Come and Take Them! The Defiant History of the Molon Labe Flag

Molon Labe FlagThe phrase “come and take them” is a popular slogan today among American second amendment activists. In a way, the slogan is a reminder of how much American citizens value their right to bear arms. In modern American culture, the slogan is not so much a warning or battle cry as it is a symbol of patriotism. It serves to remind the citizens how lucky they are to live in a country where freedom, independence, and choice are still something meaningful and valuable. Continue reading

Chicago Flag: A Fascinating City’s History on Display

Chicago city flags waving

Nothing symbolizes pride quite like a flag. Every American smiles to see our nation’s banner flying in front of a house or a school. Sports fans spot their fellow fanatics by the banners in windows and yards.

There is a flag for everyone—flags for causes, countries, and even cities. One of the oldest city flags in the United States is in the City of Chicago. The Chicago flag is a rich example of everything a flag should be—exemplifying the history and pride a city’s residents feel regarding their home. Continue reading

Flags of the American Revolution

Betsy Ross flag on flag pole

The Revolutionary War inspired the first sense of American patriotism in those who fought for American independence. Revolutionaries took every step they could to separate themselves and their beloved country from all aspects of British rule.

Each colony had their own flag that was used by many militia groups as a battlefield standard, and those flags influence some state flags we still see today. However, there were some flags that grew from a specific regiment or area that have also influenced some of our modern banners. Continue reading

Flag of the President of the United States

Since the birth of our great nation, the American flag has gone through many changes and designs and, though the first president was elected in 1789, there wasn’t an official flag for the Commander in Chief until 1882. Congress then declared that the president was the commander of the army and navy and, with this designation, they needed flags to denote the president’s presence. Continue reading

Celebrating Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross with George Washington and First Flag

There is a fine line between history and legend because there is usually a granule or two of truth within the lore. Not to mention, history is only fact in the eyes of the person who wrote it.  Over 240 years ago, we know a woman named Betsy Ross lived in colonial Pennsylvania. Did she stitch the first American flag? Here is what legend and history tell us: Continue reading

A Brief History of the American Flag

American Flag DividerMultiple American Flags

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.

Grand Union Flag Divider

Grand Union FlagThe 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 Resolution Divider

American Flag of the ResolutionFlag 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 Divider

Betsy Ross FlagBetsy 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 Divider

Star Spangled BannerStar-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 Divider

US Historical FlagsGrowing 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.

In Appreciation of City Flags

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Throughout history, flags have served as an excellent display of cultural and geographic identity. A flag tends to be viewed as a physical representation of the intangible idea of the nation. Every weekday children across the United States of America say The Pledge of Allegiance to Old Glory, and they could easily explain to you that the thirteen red and white stripes are for the thirteen original colonies, and that the fifty stars stand for the fifty current states in the union. Continue reading

The American Flag in Popular Culture

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The American flag is a powerful symbol, frequently used to act as shorthand for American ideals and to reflect concepts associated with the country. It has appeared in countless movies and television shows to color one idea or another. Not all of its appearances are positive, of course; symbols work on many layers.
A brief overview of some of its more significant appearances and the methodology of its manipulations would take some time, so let’s get started.
Probably one of the easiest associations the American flag can be given is patriotism. Not jingoism – we’ll get to that – but the traditional feeling that your country is a good one, doing things as best it can. War movies are chockablock full of this sort of use.

Patton, 1970

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from the IMDB

A biopic of General George S. Patton, the movie covers his military career during World War II. Obviously imagery is important in rallying the troops, and the general was a master of motivation. The speech George C. Scott delivers in front of the massive backdrop of Old Glory is amazing, but the movie is no hagiography. It is a well-regarded film, carefully researched and masterfully acted.

Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942

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from the IMDB

Another biopic, but a very different one, this is a musical about the composer of the songs “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There,” George M. Cohan. Since it’s a musical, props are vitally important in providing exposition as quickly as possible. The flag makes numerous triumphant appearances, although not in color.

Superman II, 1980

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from capedwonder.com

Here is a great scene featuring the flag, as Superman, self-proclaimed proponent of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” returns the White House’s flag.
We’ll come back to Superman in pop culture later; he’s associated with the flag very frequently.

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The Rocketeer, 1991

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from the IMDB

This movie is set just before American involvement in World War II. Hotshot pilot Cliff Secord protects an experimental rocket-pack from the Nazis who want to steal it in order to have jet-propelled Stormtroopers razing Europe and America. It contains strong iconography and great photography, although just after this frame Cliff activates his rocket-pack and accidentally ignites the flag. Though it makes for a good scene cut, it’s an odd juxtaposition.

Captain America, 2011

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from the IMDB

The iconography and patriotic impact of the Stars and Stripes doesn’t get more on point than this. America’s only Super-Soldier is used as a shill for selling war bonds, using his immense physical prowess and the proud colors of the flag to do so during the USO show he’s touring with. It’s for a good cause, sure, but he feels he’s not doing enough to move the war effort along as a public relations flak. At this place in the film, though, he’s doing it and doing his best at it, because that’s what the guy who represents all the little guys who want to help would do. Nothing is more American than that.

Rocky IV, 1985

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from the IMDB

This is a blatant attempt to manipulate emotions in moviegoers, and it’s pretty effective in some ways. Unfortunately, Rocky Balboa is wearing the flag’s components as shorts, which is bad enough, but is also using an actual flag as a towel, undercutting the sentiment rather sharply.

Tootsie, 1982

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from the IMDB

At this point, the flag is just a backdrop to help make the red dress more visually dramatic. It’s almost an afterthought, albeit a carefully crafted one.

Easy Rider, 1969

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from the IMDB

Here the flag is being used ironically, in a movie that has a very cynical view of what late 60s America had to offer. The rider of the motorcycle pictured in the poster is even nicknamed Captain America, but his search for the true freedom America represents is punctuated by violence, larceny, smuggling, and eventually disillusionment and death. The freedom to follow your own dreams clashes with what the movie depicts as typical Americans, and no one, in the end, wins.

The Stars and Stripes also feature prominently in songs. Country-western songs tend to celebrate the flag and those who love it, while other styles may lean more toward expressing the sentiments the flag stands for; that is, freedom of expression. Several protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s reference the flag in lyrics or while being performed on stage, and the tradition continues today.

Art gives the flag a prominent place, sometimes to celebrate, sometimes to question. Many famous paintings have the flag as a significant element, if not the focal point.

One of the most famous paintings depicting the flag is Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, painted in 1851.

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A beautiful image, although with an inaccurate flag; the one shown here is a contemporary version that wasn’t designed at the time of the crossing. Still, there are many more artistic licenses taken with this subject, so we’ll let it slide.

The Surrender of General Cornwallis, by John Trumbull in 1820, seems to have a similar issue with its flag.

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It looks like the same “Betsy Ross” style flag, but the star in the center verifies that it is actually the Cowpens flag, which was designed in 1781, before the war ended, so at least it has the advantage of being chronologically accurate.

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Flagpoles are a popular way of incorporating art and a living flag.

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The Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia is an iconic example of this. Based on the famous photograph of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, this massive installation sports a sixty-foot flagpole being planted by six thirty-two-foot tall Marines. It is one of a very few sites where the flag is flown twenty-four hours a day, per special order of President John F. Kennedy.

One of the most enduring places the flag has been utilized is in that quintessential American art form, the comic book.

Early comics were not at all shy about displaying the flag, perhaps unsurprisingly since they debuted largely around the beginning of World War II. Many of the early artists and writers of the new publications were immigrants from Europe, where they had witnessed Hitler’s rise to power, and they were eager to present their insights. Superman and Batman personally made a point to sell war bonds when they weren’t punching the Axis powers back across the ocean.

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Or, in this case, hitting them with baseballs.

Of course, as mentioned previously, Captain America was literally wearing the flag’s colors and using its iconography, so he would definitely leap at the chance to knock Hitler on his backside, as seen on this comic cover.

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from the Grand Comics Database

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

Superman has long been strongly associated with American values. He represents something of the idealized immigrant: Someone who comes to America (less specifically, Earth) to make a new life for themselves, who works hard and adopts his new country’s (planet’s) ways, and who becomes a role model for what the American Dream can be for everyone.

In recent years, this has been explored more thoroughly than in the past. Superman has delved into his prior heritage and integrated aspects of his ancestry into his life and work, reflecting the cultural diversity becoming so ubiquitous in American life today. Still, through it all, he remains a Midwestern farm boy, raised with middle-class American values of hard work and honesty.

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from comicbook.com

Captain America is a different kind of American success story. A sickly youth who wanted to join the war effort, he volunteered for an experiment that transformed him into a physically perfect human specimen. The triumph of science and ingenuity was a common theme in superhero comics, but this origin explicitly placed Steve Rogers as the recipient of the greatest medical and military technology America could offer.

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from Best of Marvel Comics

image19But Captain America is specifically a symbol of America, and Steve Rogers hasn’t always agreed with what he’s told that means. From time to time he has even given up the uniform to rediscover what the American spirit actually is.

Because, for Steve Rogers, the representation of America isn’t inherent in the flag, or the uniform, or the devotion to duty. America is freedom and compassion, simple and straightforward. If he has to go against what the rules say, to do the right thing, the rules are wrong. Captain America: Civil War has a great speech which clearly expresses that philosophy:

[…]”Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, *you* move’.”

An excellent sentiment to wrap up our brief overview. More specialized investigations may lie ahead.

 

 

 

Nice Try, Early American Flag Designers

You can’t say they didn’t make any effort. There are plenty of designs that didn’t make the official cut, although even the official flag has been modified twenty-six different times. Mostly, of course, to denote new states added to the canton as stars, which always necessitates a redesign of the pattern, some more successful than others.

Rather than a step-by-step showcase of how the field has changed and how it’s likely to change again if new states are ratified, let’s take a look at some of the more exotic offerings our forefathers were planning on for the flag.

We’ll start with a classic: the original “Grand Union” flag, called the “Continental Colors” as well. It has the basic elements: thirteen alternating red and white stripes, and a canton in the upper left hand corner at the hoist, but the star field is not yet a feature. The Union Jack resides there instead, as this was a common feature for Great Britain’s colonies to sport.

Other similar variations on the theme include the “Betsy Ross” flag, although, honestly it’s not clear that she ever had anything to do with the flag––the story that she had sewn it wasn’t presented until nearly a century later.

Definitely great, though. The Cowpens flag is almost the same thing, except with twelve stars in the circle and one in the center; it was carried over the Battle of Cowpens by the 3rd Maryland Regiment and is depicted in the famous painting The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard.

The Great Star Flag has twenty stars, arranged in a star shape:

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Which is awesome, but didn’t last long, only flying over the Capitol Dome for six months or so, before more states came in so it had to change again. A later attempt to arrange the stars in a star used different-sized stars and looks, arguably, even cooler:

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Fitting twenty-six stars in an inverted star shape, it lasted eight years.

It should be pointed out that none of these designs were technically ever federally-mandated designs: Congress didn’t designate an actual pattern to the stars on the canton until the forty-eight star flag in 1912. In fact, the colors of the flag weren’t standardized until 1934, which is something you would think even Congress would have gotten around to sooner.

While those are interesting, today’s blog consumer demands more. What about some of the flags that never even made it to non-official status? Glad you asked, straw reader! Let’s look at some now!

Here’s the Brandywine flag, named for Captain Robert Wilson’s company in the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment, after it was carried in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777:

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Yes, it’s square with an entire other flag in the canton. Bold, indeed!

The Green Mountain Boys flag, now being used by the Vermont National Guard regimental unit:

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The stars are arranged in a “natural pattern,” not in a “sewn on while on horseback” pattern like you might have first thought.

George Rogers Clark, the “Conqueror of the Northwest,” had his own flag that was a contender:

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Pretty striking, but perhaps a bit of an eyestrain? It’s probably not even actually the colors he marched under. Some scholars say the red and green may represent the wampum presented by a Piankeshaw chief, symbolic of the local Wabash River.

How about the Guilford Courthouse flag?

Well, it’s probably not even really a flag, technically speaking; at least, never meant to be presented as an actual consideration for a national flag. It was common practice for soldiers and sailors to make a flag that was evocative of the nation’s flag but distinct enough to use as a regimental or company flag. The reversed colors, the shape, the elongated canton, the eight-pointed stars―all point to this being exactly what was going on here. Too bad, too; it’s definitely a memorable design.

The Easton flag, now being used to represent the city of Easton, Pennsylvania:

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A very classy, inverted design. This was used as the company flag for Captain Abraham Horn during the War of 1812, and some think it might date from that era rather than the frequently claimed 1776, hoisted at the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8th.

There was no shortage of fascinating designs provided by the vexillologists of our past. As the country’s needs evolve, perhaps the flags of our future will be just as intriguing.