The Quick 10: 10 Facts About the American Flag

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Sunday commemorates the United States' 93rd Flag Day. Sort of. We'll get to that in a second. It's one of those underrated holidays that doesn't get too much attention, but we're bucking that trend here on the _floss by dedicating 10 facts just to the flag.

flag day1. It was 1916 that Woodrow Wilson set aside June 14 as the the date for honoring the flag. But it wasn't actually declared National Flag Day until 1949, when it was established by an act of Congress. Why June 14? Because that's the day in 1777 that the Second Continental Congress adopted Betty Ross' (according to popular legend, anyway) flag as the official flag of the United States.
2. You know the story "“ George Washington prevailed upon Betsy Ross to create a flag for the country and she sewed it up with her bare hands. It's a nice story and all, but nearly all flag historians believe it probably never really happened. Our only source for this tale is her family "“ no historical records seem to back it up. No records show that the Continental Congress issued a flag to be designed, no invoice or any supporting documents have ever been found amongst Betsy's detailed records, and no mention of a national flag appears in Congress records until the Flag Resolution of 1777.

3. The United States Flag Code specifies that the flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. As far as we can tell, this custom dates back to the 1908 London Olympics. All countries were asked to respectfully dip their flags to the Royal Box when the procession passed by King Edward VII, but Ralph Rose, the American track and field athlete holding the flag, refused to comply. His teammate Martin Sheridan later explained, "This flag dips to no earthly king." The tradition has been upheld ever since and was officially written into the Flag Code in 1911.

4. I see this rule of the Flag Code broken all of the time, and I bet you do too: the flag should not be used for any advertising purpose, including worn on clothes or for decoration in general (it's fine on coffins). I'm picturing myself in the early "˜90s "“ cutoff jean shorts with cuffs and a big, oversized American flag t-shirt "“ and I feel guilty for so many reasons.

washington5. There's a theory that the red and white stripes on the flag were based on George Washington's coat of arms. There's no proof for this; the idea is based purely on the resemblance of colors and shapes. Most historians think the flag was probably based off of the Sons of Liberty flag. If you've ever read Johnny Tremaine you probably remember these guys "“ they were a secret organization that rebelled against British taxes and laws. Their flag was nine vertical stripes, commonly red and white (yellow and green were also sometimes used instead of red). It's thought that the nine stripes represented the number of colonies that would attend the Stamp Act Congress.

6. You no doubt know that "Old Glory" refers to the flag, but there's actually a specific flag that started the trend. It was made for Captain William Driver to fly from the mast of his whaling ship in the early 1800s. Measuring 10 feet by 17 feet, it was pretty large and rather difficult to conceal when the Civil War broke out. Old Glory had become rather famous thanks to Driver and his travels, and he believed that Confederate soldiers wanted to destroy his beloved flag to send a message to the Union. He had it sewn inside a quilt and it remained there until the Union took Nashville back. Then, the story goes, Driver flew Old Glory from the state capitol building in celebration. These days, she resides in the Smithsonian and will probably stay there for the rest of her existence "“ the flag was taken out for an exhibition in 2006 and it was determined afterward that it was too fragile to be moved from the museum ever again.

starspangled7. There is also a specific Star-Spangled Banner. It's the flag Francis Scott Key saw when he was watching Fort McHenry being bombarded during the War of 1812 "“ his tale goes just like the song goes: after gunfire and rain all night, the flag was still standing when the sun rose. Inspired, Key wrote down what he was feeling "“ but when he wrote it, it was simply a poem called "Defense of Fort McHenry." It became a song when Key's brother-in-law discovered that the poem perfectly fit the tune of a popular song called "The Anacreontic Song." Although the song was played at public events and on patriotic occasions from that point on, it wasn't officially named as the national anthem until after Robert Ripley of Ripley's Believe it or Not noted in his cartoon that "Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem." John Philip Sousa rallied for The Star-Spangled Banner to become the new national anthem, and on March 3, 1931, Herbert Hoover signed a law making it so.

8. The designer of our current 50-star flag was a high school student at the time. It was 1958 and there was some chatter that Alaska and Hawaii were going to officially become states 49 and 50. One of his teachers capitalized on the current events of the day and had his students design a new flag incorporating the two new states. Robert G. Heft did just that, arranging the stars so it wasn't very evident that he had added any. His teacher gave him a B-, saying that the design was unoriginal. When Heft balked at the grade, his teacher told him that if he could get the flag adopted by Congress, he would bump the grade up to an A. Heft jumped at the opportunity and sent the flag to his congressman, who ended up getting the flag approved. Heft got the grade increase. Since then, Heft's original homemade flag has flown over every single state capitol building, over 88 U.S. embassies, and over the White House for five administrations. He has a design with 51 stars ready to go if the need arises.

9. There are a handful of flags that are displayed continuously despite weather conditions. A few of the places you can find these flags include the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Washington Monument; Gettysburg College at a spot that served as a lookout and hospital during the Civil War (fittingly, this one is a Civil War flag); at the Maryland birthplace and grace of Francis Scott Key; on the surface of the moon; at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, S.D.,; and in Nashville City Cemetery over the grave site of William Driver.

10. There's a proper way to fly a flag at half staff, and it's not just hoisting it halfway and stopping "“ it has to go to the top of the pole first before it is slowly lowered to the appropriate height. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first President to officially issue the half-staff proclamation.

June 12, 2009 - 11:29am
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