Flag Day is June 14. Though this is the special date we honor as the birth date of the Stars & Stripes, just about any day is fine for displaying our national emblem.
The United States may be one of the youngest countries in the world, but our flag is among the oldest. Old Glory, as it was nicknamed back in 1824 by sea captain William Driver of Salem, Massachusetts, is even older than the present Union Jack of Great Britain, and the French and Italian banners.
Just before Capt. Driver was to sail on a ‘round-the-world voyage, a group of ladies presented him with a 12-foot by 24-foot flag they had made. As it was hoisted up the masthead, the captain is said to have exclaimed, “Old Glory, Old Glory!”
Before the present flag was designed during the Revolutionary War, a number of banners were used by Colonial soldiers representing their colony. The Liberty Tree was the banner of New England, showing a green pine tree on a field of white with the words: “An Appeal to God.” The Culpeper County, Virginia, flag had a coiled rattlesnake and warned: “Don’t Tread on Me!”
Stars and stripes had also been used on a few early colonial flags, including the Grand Union which had 13 red and white stripes with the British Union Jack in the upper left corner. In fact, this flag flew over General George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Jan. 1, 1776. Just a month earlier that same flag had flown on Capt. John Paul Jones’ ship.
The Continental Congress formed a committee in 1775 to come up with a design for a new flag and on June 14, 1777, they finally settled on one with 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 stars on a background of blue. By fall it was flying on all colonial war ships.
When Vermont and Kentucky entered the Union in 1891 and 1892, respectively, two more stripes and two more stars were added to the flag. The 15-star/15-stripe flag was flying over Fort McHenry in September of 1814 when Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
A great deal of controversy arose when five more states were taken into the country. The concern was that adding additional stripes would either make the flag too large or the stripes too small. In 1818 President James Monroe settled the argument by signing a bill stating that the flag would revert to its original 13 stripes representing the first 13 colonies and additional stars would be added for each new state. As more states joined the Union, the flag underwent many changes in the arrangement of the star field. After Arizona became a state in 1912, it remained unchanged until 1959 when Alaska became a state and the following year with the entry of Hawaii.
One hundred years after the birth of the flag (1877), Congress declared it should be raised over public buildings on June 14. And in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Flag Day be observed throughout the country on June 14 every year. In Pennsylvania, it’s a legal holiday.
Rod King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to this newspaper. He lives in New Haven.