Flag of the United States

United States of America
Flag of the United States of America
NamesThe American flag,
UseNational flag and ensign
  • December 3, 1775 (Grand Union Flag)
  • June 14, 1777 (13-star version)
  • July 4, 1960 (current 50-star version)
DesignThirteen horizontal stripes alternating red and white; in the canton, 50 white stars of alternating numbers of six and five per horizontal row on a blue field

The flag of the United States of America, often referred to as the American flag or U.S. flag, is the national flag of the United States. It consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton (referred to specifically as the "union") bearing fifty small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows, where rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternate with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states of the United States of America, and the 13 stripes represent the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and became the first states in the U.S.[1] Nicknames for the flag include the Stars and Stripes,[2][3] Old Glory,[4] and the Star-Spangled Banner.


The current design of the U.S. flag is its 27th; the design of the flag has been modified officially 26 times since 1777. The 48-star flag was in effect for 47 years until the 49-star version became official on July 4, 1959. The 50-star flag was ordered by then president Eisenhower on August 21, 1959, and was adopted in July 1960. It is the longest-used version of the U.S. flag and has been in use for over 59 years.[5]

First flag

At the time of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the Continental Congress would not legally adopt flags with "stars, white in a blue field" for another year. The flag contemporaneously known as "the Continental Colors" has historically been referred to as the first national flag.[6]

The Continental Navy raised the Colors as the ensign of the fledgling nation in the American War for Independence—likely with the expedient of transforming their previous British red ensigns by adding white stripes—and would use this flag until 1777, when it would form the basis for the subsequent de jure designs.[6][7]

The name "Grand Union" was first applied to the Continental Colors by George Preble in his 1872 history of the U.S. flag.[7]

The flag closely resembles the British East India Company flag of the era, and Sir Charles Fawcett argued in 1937 that the company flag inspired the design.[8] Both flags could have been easily constructed by adding white stripes to a British Red Ensign, one of the three maritime flags used throughout the British Empire at the time. However, an East India Company flag could have from nine to 13 stripes, and was not allowed to be flown outside the Indian Ocean.[9] Benjamin Franklin once gave a speech endorsing the adoption of the Company's flag by the United States as their national flag. He said to George Washington, "While the field of your flag must be new in the details of its design, it need not be entirely new in its elements. There is already in use a flag, I refer to the flag of the East India Company."[10] This was a way of symbolising American loyalty to the Crown as well as the United States' aspirations to be self-governing, as was the East India Company. Some colonists also felt that the Company could be a powerful ally in the American War of Independence, as they shared similar aims and grievances against the British government tax policies. Colonists therefore flew the Company's flag, to endorse the Company.[11]

However, the theory that the Grand Union Flag was a direct descendant of the flag of the East India Company has been criticised as lacking written evidence.[12] On the other hand, the resemblance is obvious, and a number of the Founding Fathers of the United States were aware of the East India Company's activities and of their free administration of India under Company rule.[12] In any case, both the stripes (barry) and the stars (mullets) have precedents in classical heraldry. Mullets were comparatively rare in early modern heraldry, but an example of mullets representing territorial divisions predating the U.S. flag are those in the coat of arms of Valais of 1618, where seven mullets stood for seven districts.

Flag Resolution of 1777

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: "Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."[13] Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. While scholars still argue about this, tradition holds that the new flag was first hoisted in June 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment.[14]

The first official U.S. flag flown during battle was on August 3, 1777, at Fort Schuyler (Fort Stanwix) during the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Massachusetts reinforcements brought news of the adoption by Congress of the official flag to Fort Schuyler. Soldiers cut up their shirts to make the white stripes; scarlet material to form the red was secured from red flannel petticoats of officers' wives, while material for the blue union was secured from Capt. Abraham Swartwout's blue cloth coat. A voucher is extant that Capt. Swartwout of Dutchess County was paid by Congress for his coat for the flag.[15]

Francis Hopkinson's flag for the U.S. Navy, featuring 13 six-pointed stars arranged in rows.
13-star so-called "Betsy Ross" variant

The 1777 resolution was most probably meant to define a naval ensign. In the late 18th century, the notion of a national flag did not yet exist, or was only nascent. The flag resolution appears between other resolutions from the Marine Committee. On May 10, 1779, Secretary of the Board of War Richard Peters expressed concern "it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the United States."[16] However, the term, "Standard," referred to a national standard for the Army of the United States. Each regiment was to carry the national standard in addition to its regimental standard. The national standard was not a reference to the national or naval flag.[17]

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement, number of points, nor orientation for the stars and the arrangement or whether the flag had to have seven red stripes and six white ones or vice versa.[18] The appearance was up to the maker of the flag. Some flag makers arranged the stars into one big star, in a circle or in rows and some replaced a state's star with its initial.[19] One arrangement features 13 five-pointed stars arranged in a circle, with the stars arranged pointing outwards from the circle (as opposed to up), the so-called Betsy Ross flag. This flag, however, is more likely a flag used for celebrations of anniversaries of the nation's birthday. Experts have dated the earliest known example of this flag to be 1792 in a painting by John Trumbull.[20]

Despite the 1777 resolution, the early years of American independence featured many different flags. Most were individually crafted rather than mass-produced. While there are many examples of 13-star arrangements, some of those flags included blue stripes[21] as well as red and white. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in a letter dated October 3, 1778, to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, described the American flag as consisting of "13 stripes, alternately red, white, and blue, a small square in the upper angle, next the flag staff, is a blue field, with 13 white stars, denoting a new Constellation."[22] John Paul Jones used a variety of 13-star flags on his U.S. Navy ships including the well-documented 1779 flags of the Serapis and the Alliance. The Serapis flag had three rows of eight-pointed stars with stripes that were red, white, and blue. The flag for the Alliance, however, had five rows of eight-pointed stars with 13 red and white stripes, and the white stripes were on the outer edges.[23] Both flags were documented by the Dutch government in October 1779, making them two of the earliest known flags of 13 stars.[24]

Designer of the first stars and stripes

Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a naval flag designer, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag[25] while he was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department, sometime between his appointment to that position in November 1776 and the time that the flag resolution was adopted in June 1777. The Navy Board was under the Continental Marine Committee.[26] Not only did Hopkinson claim that he designed the U.S. flag, but he also claimed that he designed a flag for the U.S. Navy. Hopkinson was the only person to have made such a claim during his own lifetime, when he sent a letter and several bills to Congress for his work. These claims are documented in the Journals of the Continental Congress and George Hasting's biography of Hopkinson. Hopkinson initially wrote a letter to Congress, via the Continental Board of Admiralty, on May 25, 1780.[27] In this letter, he asked for a "Quarter Cask of the Public Wine" as payment for designing the U.S. flag, the seal for the Admiralty Board, the seal for the Treasury Board, Continental currency, the Great Seal of the United States, and other devices. However, in three subsequent bills to Congress, Hopkinson asked to be paid in cash, but he did not list his U.S. flag design. Instead, he asked to be paid for designing the "great Naval Flag of the United States" in the first bill; the "Naval Flag of the United States" in the second bill; and "the Naval Flag of the States" in the third, along with the other items. The flag references were generic terms for the naval ensign that Hopkinson had designed, that is, a flag of seven red stripes and six white ones. The predominance of red stripes made the naval flag more visible against the sky on a ship at sea. By contrast, Hopkinson's flag for the United States had seven white stripes, and six red ones – in reality, six red stripes laid on a white background.[28] Hopkinson's sketches have not been found, but we can make these conclusions because Hopkinson incorporated different stripe arrangements in the Admiralty (naval) Seal that he designed in the Spring of 1780 and the Great Seal of the United States that he proposed at the same time. His Admiralty Seal had seven red stripes;[29] whereas, his second U.S. Seal proposal had seven white ones.[30] Remnants of Hopkinson's U.S. flag of seven white stripes can be found in the Great Seal of the United States and the President's seal.[28] When Hopkinson was chairman of the Navy Board, his position was like that of today's Secretary of the Navy.[31] The payment was not made, however, because other people had contributed to the design,[32] and because it was determined he had already received a salary as a member of Congress.[33][34] This contradicts the legend of the Betsy Ross flag, which suggests that she sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag by request of the government in the Spring of 1776.[35][36]

On 10 May 1779, a letter from the War Board to George Washington stated that there was still no design established for a national standard, on which to base regimental standards, but also referenced flag requirements given to the board by General von Steuben.[37] On 3 September, Richard Peters submitted to Washington "Drafts of a Standard" and asked for his "Ideas of the Plan of the Standard," adding that the War Board preferred a design they viewed as "a variant for the Marine Flag." Washington agreed that he preferred "the standard, with the Union and Emblems in the centre."[37] The drafts are lost to history, but is likely to be similar to the first Jack of the United States.[37]

The origin of the stars and stripes design has been muddled by a story disseminated by the descendants of Betsy Ross. The apocryphal story credits Betsy Ross for sewing one of the first flags from a pencil sketch handed to her by George Washington. No evidence for this exists either in the diaries of George Washington nor in the records of the Continental Congress. Indeed, nearly a century passed before Ross' grandson, William Canby, first publicly suggested the story in 1870.[38] By her family's own admission, Ross ran an upholstery business, and she had never made a flag as of the supposed visit in June 1776.[39] Furthermore, her grandson admitted that his own search through the Journals of Congress and other official records failed to find corroboration of his grandmother's story.[40]

The family of Rebecca Young claimed that she sewed the first flag.[41] Young's daughter was Mary Pickersgill, who made the Star Spangled Banner Flag.[42][43] She was assisted by Grace Wisher, an African American girl at just 13 years old.[44] According to rumor, the Washington family coat of arms, shown in a 15th-century window of Selby Abbey, was the origin of the stars and stripes.[45]

Later flag acts

15-star, 15-stripe Star Spangled Banner Flag
The 48-star flag was in use from 1912 to 1959, the second longest-used U.S. flag. The current U.S. flag is the longest-used flag, having surpassed the 1912 version in 2007.

In 1795, the number of stars and stripes was increased from 13 to 15 (to reflect the entry of Vermont and Kentucky as states of the Union). For a time the flag was not changed when subsequent states were admitted, probably because it was thought that this would cause too much clutter. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "Defence of Fort M'Henry", later known as "The Star Spangled Banner", which is now the American national anthem. The flag is currently on display in the exhibition, "The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem" at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History in a two-story display chamber that protects the flag while it is on view.[46]

Oil painting depicting the 39 historical U.S. flags

On April 4, 1818, a plan was passed by Congress at the suggestion of U.S. Naval Captain Samuel C. Reid[47] in which the flag was changed to have 20 stars, with a new star to be added when each new state was admitted, but the number of stripes would be reduced to 13 so as to honor the original colonies. The act specified that new flag designs should become official on the first July 4 (Independence Day) following admission of one or more new states. The most recent change, from 49 stars to 50, occurred in 1960 when the present 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.[48]

Prior to the adoption of the 48-star flag in 1912, there was no official arrangement of the stars in the canton, although the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy used standardized designs. Throughout the 19th century there was an abundance of different star patterns, rectangular and circular.

On July 4, 2007, the 50-star flag became the version of the flag in longest use, surpassing the 48-star flag that was used from 1912 to 1959.

"Flower Flag" arrives in Asia

The U.S. flag was brought to the city of Canton (Guǎngzhōu) in China in 1784 by the merchant ship Empress of China, which carried a cargo of ginseng.[49] There it gained the designation "Flower Flag" (Chinese: 花旗; pinyin: huāqí; Cantonese Yale: fākeì).[50] According to a pseudonymous account first published in the Boston Courier and later retold by author and U.S. naval officer George H. Preble:

When the thirteen stripes and stars first appeared at Canton, much curiosity was excited among the people. News was circulated that a strange ship had arrived from the further end of the world, bearing a flag "as beautiful as a flower". Every body went to see the kwa kee chuen [花旗船; Fākeìsyùhn], or "flower flagship". This name at once established itself in the language, and America is now called the kwa kee kwoh [花旗國; Fākeìgwok], the "flower flag country"—and an American, kwa kee kwoh yin [花旗國人; Fākeìgwokyàhn]—"flower flag countryman"—a more complimentary designation than that of "red headed barbarian"—the name first bestowed upon the Dutch.[51][52]

In the above quote, the Chinese words are written phonetically based on spoken Cantonese. The names given were common usage in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[53] Vietnam has borrowed the term for the United States, as Hoa Kỳ or 花旗 ("Flower Flag") in Vietnamese.

Chinese now refer to the United States as Měiguó (simplified Chinese: 美国; traditional Chinese: 美國). Měi is short for Měilìjiān (simplified Chinese: 美利坚; traditional Chinese: 美利堅, phono-semantic matching of "American") and "guó" means "country", so this name is unrelated to the flag. However, the "flower flag" terminology persists in some places today: for example, American Ginseng is called flower flag ginseng (simplified Chinese: 花旗参; traditional Chinese: 花旗參) in Chinese, and Citibank, which opened a branch in China in 1902, is known as Flower Flag Bank (花旗银行).[53]

Additionally, the seal of Shanghai Municipal Council in Shanghai International Settlement in 1869 included the U.S. flag as part of the top left-hand shield near the flag of the U.K., as the U.S. participated in the creation of this enclave in the Chinese city of Shanghai. The seal used 32-star flag as in the flag, when the U.S. flag already used the 37-star design. It is also included in the badge of the Kulangsu Municipal Police in the International Settlement of Kulangsu, Amoy.[54]

The U.S. flag took its first trip around the world in 1787–90 on board the Columbia.[50] William Driver, who coined the phrase "Old Glory", took the U.S. flag around the world in 1831–32.[50] The flag attracted the notice of Japanese when an oversized version was carried to Yokohama by the steamer Great Republic as part of a round-the-world journey in 1871.[55]

Historical progression of designs

In the following table depicting the 28 various designs of the United States flag, the star patterns for the flags are merely the usual patterns, often associated with the United States Navy. Canton designs, prior to the proclamation of the 48-star flag, had no official arrangement of the stars. Furthermore, the exact colors of the flag were not standardized until 1934.[56]

Number of
Number of
Design(s) States represented
by new stars
Dates in use Duration
0 13 Flag of the United States (1776–1777).svg Union Jack instead of stars, red and white stripes represent Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia December 3, 1775[57] – June 14, 1777 1 12 years
13 13 Flag of the United States (1777–1795).svg
Hopkinson Flag.svg
Flag of the United States (1777-1795).svg
Cowpens Flag.svg
Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia June 14, 1777 – May 1, 1795 18 years
15 15 Flag of the United States (1795-1818).svg
Flag of the United States (1795–1818).svg
Vermont, Kentucky May 1, 1795 – July 3, 1818 23 years
20 13 Flag of the United States (1818-1819).svg
US 20 Star GreatStar Flag.svg
Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee July 4, 1818 – July 3, 1819 1 year
21 13 Flag of the United States (1819–1820).svg Illinois July 4, 1819 – July 3, 1820 1 year
23 13 Flag of the United States (1820–1822).svg Alabama, Maine July 4, 1820 – July 3, 1822 2 years
24 13 Flag of the United States (1822-1836).svg Missouri July 4, 1822 – July 3, 1836
1831 term "Old Glory" coined
14 years
25 13 Flag of the United States (1836–1837).svg Arkansas July 4, 1836 – July 3, 1837 1 year
26 13 Flag of the United States (1837–1845).svg
US 26 Star GreatStar Flag.svg
Michigan July 4, 1837 – July 3, 1845 8 years
27 13 Flag of the United States (1845–1846).svg Florida July 4, 1845 – July 3, 1846 1 year
28 13 Flag of the United States (1846–1847).svg Texas July 4, 1846 – July 3, 1847 1 year
29 13 Flag of the United States (1847–1848).svg
US 29 Star Diamond Pattern Flag.svg
Iowa July 4, 1847 – July 3, 1848 1 year
30 13 Flag of the United States (1848–1851).svg Wisconsin July 4, 1848 – July 3, 1851 3 years
31 13 Flag of the United States (1851–1858).svg California July 4, 1851 – July 3, 1858 7 years
32 13 Flag of the United States (1858–1859).svg Minnesota July 4, 1858 – July 3, 1859 1 year
33 13 Flag of the United States (1859–1861).svg
US 33 Star Fort Sumter Flag.svg
US 33 Star GreatStar Flag.svg
US 33 Star Flag 2.svg
Oregon July 4, 1859 – July 3, 1861 2 years
34 13 Flag of the United States (1861-1863).svg
Flag of the United States of America (1861-1863).svg
Kansas July 4, 1861 – July 3, 1863 2 years
35 13 Flag of the United States (1863-1865).svg
Flag of the United States of America (1863-1865).svg
West Virginia July 4, 1863 – July 3, 1865 2 years
36 13 Flag of the United States (1865–1867).svg
US 36 Star Wagon Wheel Flag.svg
Nevada July 4, 1865 – July 3, 1867 2 years
37 13 Flag of the United States (1867–1877).svg
Flag of the United States (1867-1877).svg
US 37 Star Medallion Centennial Flag.svg
Nebraska July 4, 1867 – July 3, 1877 10 years
38 13 Flag of the United States (1877–1890).svg
US 38 Star Flag concentric circles.svg
Colorado July 4, 1877 – July 3, 1890 13 years
43 13 Flag of the United States (1890-1891).svg Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington July 4, 1890 – July 3, 1891 1 year
44 13 Flag of the United States (1891–1896).svg Wyoming July 4, 1891 – July 3, 1896 5 years
45 13 Flag of the United States (1896–1908).svg Utah July 4, 1896 – July 3, 1908 12 years
46 13 Flag of the United States (1908–1912).svg Oklahoma July 4, 1908 – July 3, 1912 4 years
48 13 Flag of the United States (1912-1959).svg Arizona, New Mexico July 4, 1912 – July 3, 1959 47 years
49 13 US flag 49 stars.svg Alaska July 4, 1959 – July 3, 1960 1 year
50 13 Flag of the United States (Pantone).svg Hawaii July 4, 1960 – present 59 years

Possible future design of the flag

51-star flags have been designed and used as a symbol by supporters of statehood in various areas. Above is one possible design for a 51-star flag.

If a new U.S. state were to be admitted, it would require a new design of the flag to accommodate an additional star for a 51st state.[58]

Potential statehood candidates include U.S. territories, the national capital (Washington, District of Columbia), or a state created from the partition of an existing state. Residents of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have each voted for statehood in referendums (most recently in the 2016 statehood referendum in the District of Columbia[59] and the 2017 Puerto Rican status referendum.[60]) Neither proposal has been approved by Congress.

In 2019, District of Columbia mayor Muriel Bowser had dozens of 51-star flags installed on Pennsylvania Avenue, the street linking the U.S. Capitol building with the White House, in anticipation of a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives regarding potential District of Columbia statehood.[61]

According to the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry, the United States flag never becomes obsolete. Any approved American flag may continue to be used and displayed until no longer serviceable.[62]