Happy Flag Day America! Yep, today is Flag Day and I’m here to talk all about it. If you are a flag hater, now’s the time to delete all, scroll on, and move on.
For starters and considering this is an Olympic year, did you know the U.S. flag dips to no person, even king or queen, and is the only flag at Olympic ceremonies that doesn’t dip to the head of state of the host country. I did not know this.
I do know that Old Glory, as our flag is often called, has taken a beating in recent years and I’m not talking wind and rain. I’m talking hatred, disrespect, and the flying in conjunction with other flags. I am not a fan of this recent trend for two reasons: the American flag stands alone and stands for all Americans while topical and trending flags only represent a small portion of Americans. That’s my flag feeling and I’m flying with it.
I love our flag. I fly it proudly and I love all things flag…from shoes to towels to hats to clothing…and I mean no disrespect by them although there are pretty strong rules about how the American flag should be displayed. I’m pretty sure even the oldest of old timers wouldn’t mind seeing our flag everywhere, even if it’s on a cheeseboard. Even Johnny Cash called her “The Ragged Old Flag” as he saluted all the battles she’s been through.
Okay, on with Flag Day. Unlike most other countries, America only has two national symbols: the bald eagle and the American flag, the latter of which has a fascinating history and has been the inspiration for poems, songs, books, artwork, fashion, food, and holidays. Today, we celebrate one of those holidays.
Flag Day celebrates the adoption of the American flag by the Continental Congress with the First Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777. Many years later, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation in 1916 requesting June 14 become National Flag Day and in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge issued a second proclamation, but Flag Day wasn’t officially recognized until President Harry Truman signed it into law in 1949.
In between all of this, it was none other than a school teacher, Bernard J. Cigrand, who held the first unofficial Flag Day in Waubeka, Wisconsin in 1885 and is today considered the “Father of Flag Day. Then, in 1893 the Colonial Dames of Pennsylvania got a resolution passed requiring the American flag be displayed on all public buildings in Philadelphia. In 1937, Pennsylvania was the first state to make Flag Day a legal holiday. A teacher and a bunch of women basically “created” Flag Day. I love it.
Soon after Flag Day became official nationwide, another law was passed requiring public school superintendents ensure patriotic holidays like Memorial Day, Flag Day, and others be observed in schools. Tell this to the current New Jersey school board that just recently voted to remove the names of religious and national holidays on school calendars and replace them as merely a “day off.” How times have changed.
HISTORY OF OUR FLAG
The American Flag has survived a lot, including two World Wars and current attacks from its own citizens. It’s been burned in defiance overseas but only recently has been done so right here on our own soil. Still, it is a symbol of freedom and liberty, hope and pride for most. Shut out today’s news reports and shut your eyes and instead think back to Buzz Aldrin standing proudly next to an American flag on the moon and the brave first responders holding up a tattered stars and stripes in the rubble of September 11 and unfurling a giant banner on the Pentagon. Those are the images our Founding Fathers and Betsy Ross would be proud of, but guess what, good ole Ms. Ross may not really be who we all think she is.
The first American flag is often deemed “The Betsy Ross Flag” but her actual role in its development is fuzzy and highly debated. Part of the problem is her story didn’t surface until 34 years after her death and most historians agree she probably didn’t design or sew the first flag. During the time the flag was made, there were at least 17 flag makers in Philadelphia, any of which could have sewn the first one.
Ross’ story came to life and was made public at the end of the Civil War, when it was embraced as a patriotic symbol of the country’s state of emotional and social recovery. The Betsy Ross story was published everywhere even without historical evidence or documentation supporting the tale. It was a good story that sounded good to a country that was searching for anything good, and it stuck.
The design of the flag is a bit tidier, but still has its mysteries. The vast majority of historians believe Francis Hopkinson is most likely responsible for the stars and stripes design. Hopkinson also contributed the design of the Great Seal of the United States but was never compensated for either. As for those stars and stripes and the three colors, experts can only guess as to why Congress chose them.
Some believe stars were chosen as they represent man’s desire to achieve greatness, as in “reach for the stars,” while others think the idea may have come from Freemasonry, of which Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Robert Livingston, and Paul Revere were all members of and to whom stars were important icons. The stripes probably harken back to two pre-existing flags that had previously flown in Boston and Philadelphia. As for the colors of red, white, and blue, most say they were chosen after being used in the first unofficial flag, the Continental Colors and are thought to symbolize hardiness and valor, purity and innocence, and perseverance and justice, in that order.
Although unofficial, the Continental Colors Flag is considered the first American flag and was used from 1775-1777. It included a field of 13 alternating red and white stripes with a British Union Jack in the canton. It is generally believed that the stripes represent the 13 colonies while the Union Jack was meant to show colonial loyalty to the crown and traditional British values.
By June 14, 1777 the flag was replaced by the first Stars and Stripes, on which the Union Jack was replaced with a blue field of 13 white stars said to represent a “new constellation” and America’s new found independence.
The original Star-Spangled Banner was sewn by flag maker Mary Pickersgill and others during the War of 1812. The massive flag measured 30 by 42 feet and weighed approximately 50 pounds. It consisted of 15 stripes and a blue union of 15 stars representing all the states in the Union at the time. Years later the number of stripes was reduced to 13 to represent the original 13 colonies.
The flag was made for Lt. Col. George Armistead and commissioned to fly over Ft. McHenry, where it was raised in 1814 following the American defeat of the British at the Battle of Baltimore. Inspired by the sight of the flag in all its glory, American lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner” poem, which was later set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a well-known English song. By 1861 the song’s popularity grew widespread…you could say it went “viral,”…and in 1931 it became our National Anthem.
Quick note: the “spangled” in Star-Spangled Banner means “decorated with small shiny pieces and adorned with small bright objects.” This lover of glitter has found a whole new reason to love our Star-Spangled Banner.
The original flag is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, gifted by the Armistead family in 1907.
As for our current 50-star flag, it has an equally interesting history albeit one that’s a bit more down home. It began with the impending statehood of Alaska and Hawaii and started as a high school project. For real.
High schooler Bob Heft’s history teacher at Lancaster High School in Ohio gave the class an assignment in 1958 to bring in something they made and the rest as they say is really and truly history.
Upon getting the assignment, Heft constructed a 50 star flag by modifying an old 48 star flag using blue cloth and white hand-cut stars to replace the canton. A flag enthusiast, he was inspired to add two more stars knowing there were discussions about adding Alaska and Hawaii to the Union. Upon handing in his flag, he was disappointed with the B- grade he received and challenged the grade, agreeing that if the design was accepted by Congress, the grade would be changed to an A. After spending two years writing letters and making phone calls and both states becoming eventually earning statehood, President Eisenhower informed Heft that his design had been chosen out of 1,000 designs. On July 4, 1960, he joined Eisenhower in Washington to watch his flag be officially raised. Note to kids everywhere: never give up and never settle.
So now you know the history of our flag, but do you know the etiquette that goes along with it? Here is a quick guide:
Flying at Half-Staff or Half-Mast
“Half-staff” means the flag is flown halfway up its flagpole as a symbol of mourning while “Half-mast” is when a flag is flown halfway up a ship’s mast to signal mourning or distress. When lowering a flag to either, you must first hoist it to the very top of the flagpole before lowering it. Only the president or a governor can call for this observance.
When and How to Fly the American Flag
For flags that are stationary on a building or flagpole, it’s customary to fly them from sunrise to sunset. American flags can be flown at night provided they are properly illuminated with their own dedicated spotlight.
Carrying the American Flag
The American flag is never to touch the ground or any object below it and it should never be carried flat unless draped over a casket for a funeral.
Folding the American Flag
What most of us think of when we hear this term is the procedure performed by members of the Armed Forces. U.S. flags are traditionally folded into a shape that’s reminiscent of a triangular-shaped tricorn hat typically worn during the Revolutionary War. A standard America flag will require 13 folds and there should be two lengthwise folds and 11 triangular folds.
When Flying with Other Flags
American flags are to be placed in a position of prominence over all other flags. It should also be larger or equivalent in size to all other flags on the pole or staff. The American flag should always be hoisted first and lowered last.
The U.S. Flag Code also has actual guidelines of how to fly the American flag alongside other flags. (Note to U.S. embassies of late: pay attention here.) The guidelines stipulate that no other flag may be placed in “superior prominence” to the U.S. flag (I’m guessing this means size and placement of as well…again…take note U.S. embassies) and that no flag may fly above the U.S. flag. (Sorry Texans, yours cannot despite the popular and oft-repeated story that it can because you were once a nation…more on this in a bit).
In fact, no flag may fly above the U.S. flag but all state flags may fly at the same height. Other stipulations include that when multiple flags share the same pole, the U.S. flag must fly at the peak; if two flags fly side-by-side, the U.S. flag must be on the flag’s right and the viewer’s left; and if the U.S. flag flies with multiple state flags, the U.S. must be in the center and higher than the rest.
Here’s where Texas comes in since it has its own flag code that states that if flags are on separate poles, the flags should be displayed on poles or staff of the same height, the flags should be of approximate equal size, and the U.S. flag should be to the left of the state flag from the perspective of an observer. But take heart Texans, as your flag is the only flag that can be found inside every American flag as shown in the above photo!
There is also proper etiquette and procedures we are to respectfully follow during the playing of our National Anthem, which are:
- Stand facing the flag with your right hand over your heart
- Men not in uniform should remove their hats
- Men and women in uniform should give the military salute during the entire song
The same rules hold true during the Pledge of Allegiance, the only difference being that during the Pledge a flag must be present while the “Star-Spangled Banner” can be sung without a flag present.
And speaking of the Pledge, I guess we can’t do Flag Day with the Pledge of Allegiance, right?
The Pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy and first published in “The Youth’s Companion” on September 8, 1892. The words “the flag of the United States of America” were added in 1923 and in 1954 under the urging of President Eisenhower, the phrase “under God” was added. It was once customary and practically a given that school children coast-to-coast start their school days with the Pledge but along with other patriotic traditions, this too is falling through the cracks.
When you do pledge allegiance to our United States flag, you’re to face the flag and place your right hand over your heart. Those in military uniform remain silent during its recitation and render the military salute.
So there’s the “whats,” now what about the “whys?” I have two big whys: why is our flag called “Old Glory” and why are flag patches on service member uniforms “backwards?”
The American flag has been called “Old Glory” for nearly two centuries and its story can be traced back to 1831 when a ship captain from Massachusetts named William Driver coined the phrase during one of his voyages. At the time he’d received an American flag from one of his shipmates and he proudly displayed it on his ship. As he sailed off one day, Driver noticed the flag was flowing proudly and gracefully in the wind and he yelled out, “Old Glory!” It was indeed waving and blowing in all its red, white, and blue glory.
Driver had a long appreciation for the flag and in 1837 he retired as a ship captain. Soon after, the Civil War raged during which the flag was often referred to as Old Glory. When writing his thoughts about the American flag, Driver wrote: “It has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?” Why indeed.
As to why the American flag appears reversed on uniforms, it makes sense once explained.
U.S. Army Regulations specify that the blue field of stars should always be in the highest position of honor. When viewing a flag on a wall vertically or horizontally, that position is the top upper left. When displayed on a “moving object” like a person or vehicle, the highest position of honor is the front, not the rear, so the field of blue should be displayed to the front.
According to Army Regulation 670-1: “The American flag patch is to be worn so the star filed faces forward or to the flag’s own right. When worn in this manner, the flag is facing to the observer’s right and gives the effect of the flag flying in the breeze as the wearer moves forward.”
I like to think of it this way: the flag must face forward and advancing, never retreating.
So there you have it, everything and anything you may or may not have wanted to know about Flag Day and our American flag. It flies on government buildings, schools, and even the moon and after much history and heroics, its broad stripes and bright stars are still there waving proudly o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s keep it that way.
Happy Flag Day everyone!