Thirteen red and white stripes, fifty stars, our nation’s symbol of freedom: these are all facts about the American flag that every school age child knows. Yet, there is much, much more to the Star Spangled Flags that we honor.
Here are five interesting facts about the American flag that you should teach your children:
1. The first flag of the country was a copy of one of their enemy’s flags.
Who would ever choose to copy their enemy’s flag in a revolution? Your children may be surprised to learn that some leaders of America did just that at the birth of our nation. When the American colonies declared their independence in 1776, they had no common flag to lead them against their enemy, the British Empire. Before the Continental Congress could approve of a flag design, some early patriots created our country’s first flag. The first American flag was very different from the modern version. It was called the Grand Union Flag and was first used on Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Esek Hopkins’ flagship. It featured thirteen red and white stripes with a Union Jack in the corner. Some historians have made a convincing case that the design of this first American flag may be a copy one of the well-known flags of the British Empire.
How could such a thing happen? Our first flag appears to be almost an exact duplicate of the British East India Company. This began as a private joint-stock company formed in 1600 when a group of British investors received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I. These businessmen aimed to profit from trading in the East Indies, and for a hundred years, the company was quite successful. Investors grew wealthy from the importation of cotton, silk, indigo, salt, spices, tea and opium.
As the Mughal Empire’s power crumbled in India, the company was challenged by its competitor, the French East India Company. To protect its interests, the business created its own private 260,000 man army and became the major political power in the region. While the British Empire technically ruled over this colonial area, the British East India Company actually controlled most of India from 1757 to 1858. As a military and political force, the company designed its own flag which incorporated several features of the official British Empire flag.
During the 1770s, Parliament passed several laws aimed at curtailing the company’s growing independence. The company and its friends objected strenuously to these laws and fought against them through legal channels. Because the newly formed United States of America shared many of these same grievances with the British government, some of the founding fathers thought the American flag should follow the design of the British East India Company’s flag. It was a flag that was familiar to the colonists, and some leaders considered the company as a natural ally of the colonists, as it too was resisting domination by the British Crown. A final advantage in the adoption of the company’s flag would be a subtle message to the King. Though the colonists were rebelling against policies of the king’s agents, a flag with the Union Jack communicated that they still hoped to remain as loyal subjects of the Empire with a peaceful settlement of their grievances.
2. Francis Hopkinson (not Betsy Ross) created the first flag.
Before many years of school pass, your children will learn that Betsy Ross sewed our nation’s first flag at the request of General George Washington. However, modern scholars now believe the first flag was created by Francis Hopkinson, a leading patriot from New Jersey. As the war of independence grew, the leaders of the new nation resolved to establish standards for a formal national flag. On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution describing the design of a national flag. It would have thirteen red and white stripes to represent the thirteen states. The canton would be a blue field with thirteen white stars, also symbolizing each state. At that time, the resolution did not require a certain arrangement of the stars.
Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia widow who had an upholstery shop in her home has traditionally been credited as the creative genius behind this basic design. However, there is no record of George Washington meeting with Ross to commission the creation of the new flag. This account did not become public until Ross’s grandson shared it a century after the flag was created.
Historians believe that Francis Hopkinson is the true designer of the first official flag. He was a New Jersey lawyer and businessman who served in the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.
While in Congress, he served on the Continental Marine Committee which was responsible for suggesting the flag resolution to the whole Congress. Congressional records support the view that Hopkinson designed the flag. In 1780, Hopkinson submitted a request to Congress for payment for designing the national flag, the Great Seal of the United States, the seal of the Admiralty Board, the seal of the Treasury Board, and Continental currency. He requested payment to be one cask of “the Public wine.” Congress rejected his request – not because it disputed his claim as the designer, but because he had already received compensation through his congressional salary.
3. The flag popularity increased greatly due to the Civil War.
Your children will be surprised to learn that flag flying was not commonly practiced by citizens when our nation was first born. In the early years of the United States, the flag served mostly as a marker for national territory or as a military standard. This limited the display of flags, mainly to forts and embassies overseas. The use of flags changed greatly with the occurrence of the Civil War. When the opening shots of the war occurred at Fort Sumter and Confederate artillery forced the surrender of the Union garrison, Major Robert Anderson lowered the American flag that had flown over the fort during the 34-hour bombardment.
After the Union forces were evacuated to safety, Anderson and the flag were honored in New York City on April 20, 1861. The battle-scarred Star Spangled Flag was hoisted from the Union Square statue of George Washington on horseback before a crowd of 100,000 people. It soon became a symbol of patriotism for the Union cause, and the flag went on a tour of Northern cities to raise funds for the war effort. The result was a great increase in demand by citizens for flags to fly above homes, schools, and local government buildings. “For the first time, American flags were mass-produced rather than individually stitched and even so, manufacturers could not keep up with demand,” writes historian Adam Goodheart. Since that time, the American flag has continued to be a popular symbol used by citizens to express patriotism.
4. There have been several versions of the flag.
Odds are if you asked your child how many flags the United States has had, he or she would answer “One.” The truth will astonish him or her. In the 242 year history of the United States, there have been 27 different versions of the flag. These various designs have developed as the nation grew and added new states. At first, both the number of stars and stripes were increased. For example, when Vermont and Kentucky entered the Union in 1795, the flag was re-designed to include fifteen stars and stripes.
In 1818, Congress passed a law stipulating that the number of stripes be reduced to thirteen stripes. The nation had grown to twenty states, and national leaders realized that it was not practical to continue to add stripes. Rather, the stripes would be a continual reminder of the original thirteen states. The last version of the flag was adopted on July 4, 1960. It is a 50-star flag, honoring Hawaii’s statehood in 1959. It is the longest serving version of the American flag, having been used for 58 years.
5. The current 50-star version was designed by a 17-year-old highschool student.
This is the most important American flag fact you should teach your child: Our current flag was created by a student which teaches us that even a child can serve our nation. In the late 1950s, the nation anxiously anticipated the admission of Alaska and Hawaii into statehood. This excitement generated over 1500 designs for the newest version of the flag. Robert Heft, a 17-year-old high school sophomore in Lancaster, Ohio created one of these designs. His teacher, Stanley Pratt, had given his class an assignment to design a project that demonstrated creativity.
Since Heft was interested in the possibilities of new states coming into the Union, he decided to make a flag with 50 stars. His mother refused to help him, since she feared his efforts would appear to desecrate the American flag. So, Heft sewed the flag together over several hours one weekend, arranging the 50 stars in nine rows, alternating between six and five stars in each row. His teacher originally gave Heft’s project a B-, but agreed to reconsider the grade if Heft’s design was chosen for the new flag. The ambitious student took his flag to U.S. Congressman Walter Moeller, who lobbied for its adoption. When it was chosen, Heft’s teacher changed his grade to an A.
“The American flag is the symbol of our freedom, national pride and history,” said Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick. The history of our nation’s Star Spangled Flag is rich with many interesting and unknown details. When we teach our children these facts, it will make their appreciation for our nation and flag much richer.