When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, the colonists weren’t fighting united under a single flag. Instead, most regiments participating in the war for independence against the British fought under their own flags. In June of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to create the Continental Army—a unified colonial fighting force—with the hopes of a more organized battle against its colonial oppressors. This led to the creation of what was, essentially, the first “American” flag, the Continental Colors.
For some, this flag, which was comprised of 13 red and white alternating stripes and a Union Jack in the corner, was too similar to that of the British. George Washington soon realized that flying a flag that was even remotely close to the British flag was not a great confidence-builder for the revolutionary effort, so he turned his efforts towards creating a new symbol of freedom for the soon-to-be fledgling nation.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress took a break from writing the Articles of Confederation and adopted a resolution stating that “the flag of the United States be thirteen alternate stripes red and white” and that “the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” The national flag, which became known as the “Stars and Stripes,” was based on the “Grand Union” flag, a banner carried by the Continental Army in 1776 that also consisted of 13 red and white stripes.
It is widely believed that Betsy Ross, who assisted the Revolutionary War effort by repairing uniforms and sewing tents, made the first American flag. However, there is no historical evidence that she contributed to Old Glory’s creation. It was not until her grandson William Canby held an 1870 press conference to recount the story that the American public learned of her possible role. It is known that Ross made flags for the navy, but there is no firm evidence in support of the popular story about her making (and designing) the national flag. Since the turn of the 20th century, the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street in Philadelphia has been a museum; though it is debatable whether Ross actually ever lived or worked in this house, it is likely that she did live and work in the vicinity.
Like many of the Founding Fathers, Francis Hopkinson was a man of many talents. An artist, a musician, a poet, a lawyer, a businessman, and a politician, he seemed to do just about everything. Included in his skillset was a knack for artistic design. Hopkinson developed many seals and symbols during the US’s infancy, including the Grand Seal of the United States. However, there’s no doubt that his most important project was the national flag. He designed it while serving on the Continental Marine Committee, in a position known today as the Secretary of the Navy. In 1777, the flag was adopted as the US’s official national flag, and Hopkinson became the creator of the Stars and Stripes.
With the entrance of new states into the United States after independence, new stars and striprs were added to represent new additions to the Union. In 1818, however, Congress enacted a law stipulating that the 13 original stripes be restored and that only stars be added to represent new states.
The lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem since 1931, are taken from a patriotic poem written by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. His words were set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British drinking song. Key was inspired by the large U.S. Flag, with 15 stars and 15 stripes, known as the Star Spangled Banner, flying triumphantly above the fort during the U.S. victory. This beautiful flag is on display at the Smithsonian.
On June 14, 1877, the first flag Day observance was held on the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes. As instructed by Congress, the U.S. flag was flown from all public buildings across the country. On May 30, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed June 14 “Flag Day” as a commemoration of the “Stars and Stripes." In the years after the first Flag Day, several states continued to observe the anniversary, and in 1949 Congress officially designated June 14 as Flag Day, a national day of observance. Flag Day is not an official federal holiday. While the statute leaves it to the president’s discretion to proclaim its observance, every president since President Wilson has done so.
In 1917, as the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) travel to join the Allies on the battlefields of World War I in France, United States President Woodrow Wilson eloquently addresses the nation’s public on the annual celebration of Flag Day. Barely two months after the American entry into World War I, Wilson spoke strongly of the need to confront an enemy–Germany–that had, violated the principles of international democracy and led the world into “the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.” He made the distinction between the German people and their leaders, Wilson absolved the former of guilt and listed the numerous transgressions of the latter—U-boat warfare, espionage, the attempt to build an alliance with Mexico against the U.S.—that had provoked the U.S. into declaring war.
Stony Hill School in Waubeka, Wisconsin, is the site of the first formal observance of Flag Day. In 1885, Bernard Cigrand, a grade school teacher, held the first recognized formal observance of Flag Day there. The school has since been restored; a bust of Cigrand honors him at the National Flag Day Americanism Center in Waubeka. Cigrand generally is credited with being the “Father of Flag Day”; The Chicago Tribune noted that he “almost single-handedly” established the holiday that commemorates the stars and stripes. From the late 1880s on, Cigrand spoke around the country promoting patriotism, respect for the flag and the need for the annual observance of a flag day on June 14.
In the 1950s, when it seemed certain that Alaska would be admitted to the Union, designers began retooling the American Flag to add a 49th star to the existing 48. Meanwhile, a 17-year-old Ohio student named Bob Heft borrowed his mother’s sewing machine, disassembled his family’s 48-star flag and stitched on 50 stars in a proportional pattern. He handed in his creation to his history teacher for a class project, explaining that he expected Hawaii would soon achieve statehood as well.
Heft sent the flag to his congressman, Walter Moeller, who presented it to President Eisenhower after both new states joined the Union. Eisenhower selected Heft’s design, out of over 3,000 designs, and on July 4, 1960, the president and the high school student stood together as the 50-star flag was raised for the first time. Heft’s teacher promptly changed his grade from a B- to an A.
Flag Day also marks the birthday of the U.S. Army; Congress authorized “the American Continental Army” on June 14, 1775. he Continental Army was created to coordinate military efforts of the Colonies in their war of independence against the British, who sought to keep their American lands under control. General George Washington was the commander-in-chief of the army throughout the war. The Continental Army was supplemented by local militias and volunteer troops that were either loyal to individual states or otherwise independent. Most of the Continental Army was disbanded in 1783, after the Treaty of Paris formally ended the fighting. The 1st and 2nd Regiments of the Army went on to form what was to become the Legion of the United States in 1792. This became the foundation of what is now the United States Army.