Illustration by Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM STAFF
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No country has changed its flag as frequently as the United States. In 1817 Congressman Peter Wendover wrote the current flag law. The number of stripes was permanently limited to 13; the stars were to correspond to the number of states, with new stars added to the flag the following Fourth of July. Star arrangement was not specified, however, and throughout the 19th century a variety of exuberant star designs—“great luminaries,” rings, ovals, and diamonds—were actually used. Finally, in 1912, President Taft set forth exact regulations for all flag details.

Illustration by Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM STAFF

Flag Day's long—and surprising—history explained

Decreed by each president, this June holiday honors the American flag, a key symbol of the republic.

Red, white, and backed by a narrative almost as long as the nation—the official tri-colored, star-spangled banner that tops government buildings and citizen homes across the United States first waved on June 14, 1777 (albeit in a different configuration). To celebrate the American flag, June 14 is thus known as Flag Day.

Although Flag Day is observed on a smaller scale than neighboring patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and Independence Day, the observance has its own rich history.

Pioneered by patriots

Flag Day’s national debut came in 1916, almost two centuries—and more than 20 designs—after the flag’s adoption in the United States. On June 14 of that year, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation acknowledging the holiday.

President Calvin Coolidge issued a similar Flag Day proclamation in 1927. Congress recognized Flag Day with an official statute a few decades later, in 1949, under the Truman administration. The statute requested presidents issue annual Flag Day proclamations but did not designate it an official national holiday. Even so, all presidents since 1949 have issued a Flag Day proclamation.

But even before it received national recognition, Flag Day was pioneered by a number of patriotic citizens.

Bernard Cigrand, a nineteenth century Wisconsin school teacher, dentist, and reporter, is sometimes considered the “father of Flag Day.”

In 1885—when Cigrand was 19 years old and the flag contained 38 stars—the young teacher instructed his students in Ozaukee County to write essays entitled, “What the American flag means to me.” In the years that followed, Cigrand wrote several newspaper articles and books advocating for the creation of the holiday, including a public proposal in the Chicago Argus newspaper in 1886.

Cigrand died 17 years before the Congressional statute was passed, but Ozaukee County’s National Flag Day Foundation honors his legacy each June. And, on June 14, 2004, Congress passed an additional resolution officially recognizing that Flag Day originated in Ozaukee County.

In response, National Flag Day Foundation Chairman Jack Janik, 85, said, “The community is overwhelmed, they’re so proud.”

The foundation holds such Flag Day events as a parade, family festival, and fireworks and curates three public museums, including one specifically dedicated to Cigrand. The foundation also hosts annual essay-writing contests for students in third to 12th grade using Cigrand’s original prompt.

“The essays from all of these kids will absolutely make you feel very comfortable about the future of our country,” Janik says. “The flag means so much to them.”

Others also credited for promoting Flag Day in the late 1800s include William T. Kerr, a Pittsburgh native and founder of the Flag Day Association of Western Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, a descendent of Benjamin Franklin who petitioned for all public buildings to display the American flag, and George Bolch, a principal in New York whose school celebrated Flag Day in 1889.

A modified emblem

Today’s flag has undergone numerous modifications—26, to be exact—since the 1777 model.

The original, sometimes dubbed “The Betsy Ross”—though few researchers express confidence that Ross created the first flag—displayed 13 stars and 13 stripes, with the stars arranged in a circle. (See more than 2,000 world flags throughout history.)

The latest edition, consisting of 50 stars and 13 stripes, was created in the late 1950s. While Alaska and Hawaii were being considered for statehood, then-president Dwight Eisenhower asked for design proposals for a new flag. Among the hundreds of submissions received, there were reportedly at least three for the current flag. Most famously, one of those had been sent by then-high school junior Bob Heft of Ohio, who had designed the 50-star flag for a class assignment. Heft, who died in 2009, received a B- from an unimpressed teacher, who reportedly called the design unoriginal.

Over the next two years, Heft wrote letters and called the White House numerous times seeking his flag’s approval. He also mailed the design to his Congressman, Walter Moeller, who took up the banner. Alaska and Hawaii joined the nation in 1959 and the new design became official on July 4, 1960. Heft’s design earned its rightful “A” from his teacher—and he earned himself a White House visit.

Currently, Congress stipulates that when a new state joins the nation, a new star will be added to the flag in a proportional design the following Independence Day. The stripes remain capped at 13 to represent the 13 original colonies. Non-state U.S. jurisdictions like Puerto Rico remain unrepresented in the flag.

A symbol of independence

The flag’s symbolic meaning was not publicized until 1782, with the creation of the United States’ seal. At the seal’s unveiling, Charles Thompson, the secretary to the Continental Congress and primary designer of the seal, said the white signified purity and innocence, the red signified hardiness and valor, and the blue signified vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

Others have offered their own interpretations, with common ones being that red symbolizes the blood of the fallen, or stripes mimick rays of sunlight. Whatever the interpretation, the symbolic nature of the American flag’s design may echo the country’s individualist foundations.

In contrast to the United Kingdom’s flag, often called the “Union Jack,” which consists of the overlapping crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, the American flag pays tribute to no one person or religion.

As has been the case with their country, Americans have changed their flag throughout the years. Flag Day honors this evolving emblem.