Flag of the United States

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"Stars and stripes" redirects here. For other uses of the term, see Stars and Stripes.
File:Flag of the United States.svg
File:FIAV 63.png Flag ratio: 10:19; nicknames: Stars and Stripes, Old Glory

The flag of the United States consists of 13 equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white; there is a blue rectangle in the upper hoist-side corner bearing 50 small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternating with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states and the 13 stripes represent the 13 original colonies. The United States flag is commonly called the Stars and Stripes or Old Glory. The name Old Glory was coined by Captain William Driver, a shipmaster of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1831, and was of particularly common use during the era of the 48-star version (1912 to 1959).


Many institutions, and some homeowners, display the flag year-round, while some reserve flag display for civic holidays like Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, Presidents' Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July. On Memorial Day it is common to place small flags by war memorials and next to the graves of U.S. war dead.


To many U.S. citizens, their flag symbolizes many things. They have seen it as representing all of the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Perhaps most of all they see it as a symbol of individual and personal liberty like those put forth in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The approved method of destroying old and tattered flags consists of burning them in a simple ceremony. The flag is cut into three pieces: first a horizontal cut is made between the seventh and eighth stripes, then a vertical cut separating the star field from the seven shorter stripes. Then the three pieces are typically placed on a pyre as 'Taps' is played. Burning the flag has also been used as a deliberate act of disrespect, at times to protest actions by the United States government, or sometimes in displays of Anti-Americanism. Some groups concerned by these actions have proposed a Flag Burning Amendment that would give Congress the authority to outlaw burning the flag in disrespect or protest.

Symbolism of the design

When the Second Continental Congress proposed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, there was no particular symbolism attached to the colors or their arrangement on the flag. However, on June 20, 1782, Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, gave a report to the Congress defining the new Great Seal of the United States. A seal must conform to the rules of heraldry, and so meanings were attached to the colors:

The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America. White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance perseverance and justice. [ContCong 22:339]

Originally, both the number of stripes and the number of stars were supposed to represent the number of states. However, this became unwieldy as states were added to the union. During the debate that eventually resulted in the Flag Act of 1818, U.S. Naval Captain Samuel C. Reid suggested that the number of stripes be set at thirteen to represent the original 13 colonies and that only the number of stars be set to the number of states. [USGov 4]

A book about the flag published by the Congress in 1977 gives further symbolism for the flag:

The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun. [USFlag.org]


The design of the flag is specified by United States Code title 4, chapter 1, section 1 [1]. The specification gives the following values:

  • Hoist (width) of flag: A = 1.0
  • Fly (length) of flag: B = 1.9
  • Hoist (width) of Union: C = 0.5385 (7/13)
  • Fly (length) of Union: D = 0.76
  • E = F = 0.054
  • G = H = 0.063
  • Diameter of star: K = 0.0616
  • Width of stripe: L = 0.0769 (1/13)

Presumably E and F are approximations of 7/130 = 0.0[538461], and G and H are approximations of 0.76/12 = 0.06[3].

According to Flags of the World, the colors are specified by the General Services Administration "Federal Specification, Flag, National, United States of America and Flag, Union Jack," DDD-F-416E, dated November 27, 1981. It gives the colors by reference to "Standard Color Cards of America" maintained by the Color Association of the United States, Inc., as

  • Cable No. 70180 Old Glory Red
  • Cable No. 70001 White
  • Cable No. 70075 Old Glory Blue

The red is generally considered the same as Pantone 193, and the blue, Pantone 281.

The current 50-star flag was designed by Robert Heft in 1958 while living with his grandparents in Ohio. He was 17 years old at the time and did the flag design as a class project. His mother was a seamstress, but forced Heft to do all of the work on his own. He originally received a "B-" for the project. After discussing the grade with his teacher, it was agreed (somewhat jokingly) that if the flag was accepted by Congress, the grade would be reconsidered. Heft's flag design was chosen and adopted by presidential proclamation after Alaska and before Hawaii was admitted into the union in 1959. According to Heft, his teacher did keep to their agreement and changed his grade to an "A" for the project.

Flag etiquette

Main article: Flag etiquette of the United States

There are certain guidelines for the use and display of the United States flag as outlined in the United States Flag Code of the federal government.

Places where the American flag is displayed continuously

According to Presidential proclamation, Congressional order, and custom, the American flag is displayed continuously at the following locations:


File:Flag of Washington, D.C..svg
Washington ensign: Washington's personal colors and present flag of the District of Columbia

The flag has gone through 26 changes since the new union of 13 states first adopted it. The 48-star version holds the record, 47 years, for the longest time the flag has gone unchanged. The current 50-star version will tie the record if it is still in use on July 4, 2007.

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, the most commonly flown flag was the Grand Union Flag. This flag was initially flown by George Washington and is recorded as being first raised by Washington's troops at Prospect Hill on New Year's Day in 1776. This flag formed the basis of the Stars and Stripes, consisting of 13 red and white stripes with the British Union Jack in the canton. The Grand Union Flag is the same as the East India Company flag of the same era, although the East India Company flag could have from 9 to 13 stripes.

File:Grand union flag large v2.png
Grand Union flag. The first official flag of the United States

The red-and-white stripe (and later, stars-and-stripes) motif of the flag may have been based on the Washington family coat-of-arms, which consisted of a shield "argent, two bars gules, above, three mullets gules" (a white shield with two red bars below three red stars). Since 1937, this design has been used as the flag of the District of Columbia.

File:Bennington flag.png
Bennington flag. This flag was most likely used at the Battle of Bennington

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation." Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. Tradition holds that the new flag was first hoisted in June of 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment.

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement for the stars. Initially, a variety of designs were used, including a circular arrangement (below), but gradually a design featuring horizontal rows of stars emerged as the standard.

File:Us flag large Betsy Ross.png
13-star "Betsy Ross" flag

As further states entered the union, extra stars and stripes were added until this proved to cause too much clutter. It was ultimately decided that there would be a star for each state, but the number of stripes would remain at thirteen to honor the original colonies. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner", now the national anthem.

File:Us flag large 15 stars.png
15-star, 15-stripe "Star-Spangled Banner" flag

When the flag design changes, the change always takes place on July 4 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a consequence of the Flag Act of April 4, 1818. July 4, Independence Day in the United States, commemorates the founding of the nation. The most recent change, from forty-nine stars to fifty, occurred in 1960 when Robert G. Heft's design was chosen, after Hawaii gained statehood in August 1959. Before that, the admission of Alaska in January 1959 prompted the debut of a short-lived 49-star flag.

File:Us flag large 48 stars.png
48-star classic "Old Glory" flag, used 1912-1959

The flag flew in battle for the first time at Cooch's Bridge in Delaware on September 3, 1777 during the American Revolutionary War.

The origin of the U.S. flag design is uncertain. A popular story credits Betsy Ross for sewing the first flag from a pencil sketch by George Washington who personally commissioned her for the job. However, no evidence for this theory exists beyond Ross's own records. The British historian Sir Charles Fawcett has suggested that the design of the flag may have been derived from the flag and jack of the British East India Company. Comparisons between the 2 flags support Fawcett's suggestion. Another popular theory is that the flag was designed by Francis Hopkinson. He reportedly originally wanted the stars arranged in four bands, one vertical, one horizontal, and two diagonal. By the same reports, this arrangement was rejected due to similarity to the British flag.

State stars and design duration

In the following table, the star patterns for each flag are merely the usual patterns, with the exception of the 48-, 49-, and 50-star flags, as there was no official arrangement of the stars until the proclamation of the 48-star flag by President William Howard Taft in 1912. (For alternate versions, see this page at Flags of the World.)

No. of
Design States Represented by New Stars Dates in Use Duration in Years
13 155px Original 13 colonies June 14, 1777May 1, 1795 18
15 155px Kentucky, Vermont May 1, 1795July 3, 1818 23
20 155px Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee July 4, 1818July 3, 1819 1
21 155px Illinois July 4, 1819July 3, 1820 1
23 155px Alabama, Maine July 4, 1820July 4, 1822 2
24 155px Missouri July 4, 1822July 3, 1836 14
25 155px Arkansas July 4, 1836July 3, 1837 1
26 155px Michigan July 4, 1837July 3, 1845 8
27 155px Florida July 4, 1845July 3, 1846 1
28 155px Texas July 4, 1846July 3, 1847 1
29 155px Iowa July 4, 1847July 3, 1848 1
30 155px Wisconsin July 4, 1848July 3, 1851 3
31 155px California July 4, 1851July 3, 1858 7
32 155px Minnesota July 4, 1858July 3, 1859 1
33 155px Oregon July 4, 1859July 3, 1861 2
34 155px Kansas July 4, 1861July 3, 1863 2
35 155px West Virginia July 4, 1863July 3, 1865 2
36 155px Nevada July 4, 1865July 3, 1867 2
37 155px Nebraska July 4, 1867July 3, 1877 10
38 155px Colorado July 4, 1877July 3, 1890 13
43 155px Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington July 4, 1890July 3, 1891 1
44 155px Wyoming July 4, 1891July 3, 1896 5
45 155px Utah July 4, 1896July 3, 1908 12
46 155px Oklahoma July 4, 1908July 3, 1912 4
48 155px Arizona, New Mexico July 4, 1912July 3, 1959 47
49 155px Alaska July 4, 1959July 3, 1960 1
50 155px Hawaii July 4, 1960 45+


File:Us flag large 51 stars.png
Proposed design for a 51-star flag in the event of an additional state
  • Symmetry with respect to horizontal axis: 50, 49, 48, 46, 44, 38, 37, 36, 34, 33, 32, 30, 28, 26, 24, 20, 15, 13 (standard)
  • Symmetry with respect to vertical axis: 51, 50, 48, 46, 45, 44, 37, 36, 35, 34, 33, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 21, 20, 15, 13 (standard and Betsy Ross)
  • Both, hence also point symmetry: 50, 48, 46, 44, 37, 36, 34, 33, 32, 45, 28, 26, 24, 20, 15, 13 (standard)
  • No symmetry: 43
  • Chessboard pattern: 51, 50, 49, 45, 15, 13 (standard)
  • Rectangle of stars: 48, 35, 30, 28, 24, 20

Future of the flag

The United States Army's Institute of Heraldry has plans for flags with up to 56 stars using a similar staggered star arrangement in case additional states accede.

There are ongoing statehood movements in Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and New York City. Other insular areas such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and American Samoa may eventually become states as well.

See also


Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37).
Template:Web reference
U.S. Government (1861). Our Flag, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC. S. Doc 105-013.

External links


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