12 Fun Facts About the U.S. Flag

What does Betsy Ross have to do with it? Probably not as much as you learned in history class...
What does Betsy Ross have to do with it? Probably not as much as you learned in history class... / choness/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Flag Day is June 14. If you’re wondering what that date has to do with the Stars and Stripes, why the flag looks the way it does, who came up with it, who paid for it, and what you can and can’t do with it—read on.

1. The modern American flag was prompted by a payment of “three strings of wampum.”

By 1777, the U.S. was in the midst of the Revolutionary War and still waffling on the exact look of its flag. This was a cause for concern for Thomas Green, a Native American who wanted to bring an official flag to his Nation for protection when they visited Philadelphia. Green asked for help from the government, throwing in a payment of three strings of wampum—beads made from shells—to sweeten the deal. Within two weeks, a resolution was passed, finalizing the flag as a creation with 13 stars and 13 stripes. The date: June 14, 1777.

2. Betsy Ross might not be as tied to the American flag as we thought.

She may have sewn quite a few in her day, but there is no actual evidence Betsy Ross was the person responsible for the design of the American flag. In fact, Ross’s name didn’t even come up in conjunction with the deed until the 1870s, more than 30 years after her death. The first person to have publicly claimed design credit was New Jersey’s Francis Hopkinson in 1780, who had hoped (in vain) to earn a "quarter cask of the public wine" for his efforts.

3. The American flag hasn’t always had 13 stripes.

A few years after welcoming Vermont and Kentucky—states 14 and 15—into the union (in 1791 and 1792, respectively), a new version of the flag was created that had 15 stars and 15 stripes. As the U.S. continued to add new states, there was concern about having to continually add additional stripes. The solution: revert to 13 to represent the original 13 colonies, and let the stars do the heavy lifting.

4. Some of the American flag’s star fields have been pretty strange looking.

As of 1818, conventions concerning the numbers of stars and stripes were cemented and remain in place today. However, one thing remained uncodified: star layout. With this lack of official guidelines, some designers got creative. There was the 26-star “star” flag, which configured stars of varying sizes into a star-shaped layout; the 33-star Ft. Sumter flag, which had stars arranged in a layout that looks kind of like one of the aliens from Space Invaders; the 38-star concentric creation, which had stars in concentric circles; and others.

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5. The Dakotas threw off the star-design plans for the American flag.

There have been 27 official versions of the U.S. flag, each with a different number of stars. A 39-star version is not among them, but that didn’t stop at least one enterprising flag manufacturer from producing one for the marketplace. The reason for the miscalculation: Some thought North Dakota and South Dakota were going to be admitted as one state.

And there wasn’t even a 40-star version. The Flag Act of 1818 [PDF] specifies that the star addition “shall take effect on the fourth day of July [next.]” Montana, Washington, and Idaho were also admitted before July 4, so we skipped from a 38- to a 43-star flag.

6. The 50-star pattern of the American flag was supposedly designed by a high school student.

When Alaska became state 49, President Dwight Eisenhower received loads of ideas for a new flag, most of them featuring 49 stars (along with suggestions like a dove of peace, eagles, and maps). But—as the story goes—a year before, Robert Heft, a 17-year-old student at Lancaster (Ohio) High, was thinking ahead and guessed Hawaii would be admitted soon after Alaska. For a class project, Heft decided to create a 50-star flag—and got a B- (meanwhile, a friend who had taped five leaves to a notebook got an A).

When Heft complained, the teacher responded that if Heft could get the flag accepted by Washington, he’d change the grade. So Heft sent the flag to his congressman, saying that if a 50-star flag was ever needed, this was a potential option. Eventually, Alaska and Hawaii joined the United States, the congressman remembered he had a flag in reserve, and America got a new flag. Heft later recalled that a month after he graduated, the teacher changed the grade to an A.

7. But not everyone agrees the American flag was designed by Robert Heft.

There are some vexillologists who cast doubt on this version of events, however. They argue it’s possible the Heft story is a kind of modern update of the Betsy Ross tale. David B. Martucci writes in Raven: A Journal of Vexillology that “the official designer is listed as the Army Institute of Heraldry. In fact, by the time Heft submitted his design, the final design probably had already been chosen.” Contemporary newspapers do mention Heft, but not in a “he designed the flag” context. According to a 1960 Lancaster, Ohio, newspaper, “the new 50-star flag [Heft] made was the first 50-star flag owned and flown by an individual in the United States.” It wasn’t until later in the 1960s that papers begin to say that he “designed the official 50-star United States flag.”

8. The 50-star flag is the first American flag to have lasted 50 years.

In contrast, over a 50-year period starting in the early 1800s, the flag went through 17 different versions.

9. The actual American flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” still exists.

The flag that flew at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s poem-turned-anthem, is one of the few remaining specimens of a 15-star, 15-bar flag. What’s left of it is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

10. Two snippets of the “Star-Spangled Banner” flag sold at auction in 2011 for $65,000.

We say "what’s left of it" because the flag in question was a victim of "souveniring," a once-common practice where sections from flags were snipped off and sold as mementos. When the Smithsonian was gifted the flag, there was said to be a full 8 feet missing off the end.

11. The flag desecration amendment failed in 2006.

The proposed constitutional amendment stated that "Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” The amendment fell one vote short in the Senate.

12. Burning a flag is OK.

At least, it is as long as the flag is already damaged beyond repair. It’s one way the flag may be disposed of in a “dignified way,” according to the U.S. Flag Code.

Then again, if the U.S. Flag Code got its way, the stars and stripes wouldn’t appear in advertising either.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.