Few graphic icons hold the same visceral power as the American flag. The blue field, white stars, and red stripes have an immediate emotional impact—which is why the symbol has been so readily co-opted for everything from stage costumes to political propaganda to product advertisements.
“Reverence for the flag intensified into a civil religion with the sight of the Stars and Stripes accompanying men going off to war and draping the coffins of fallen soldiers.”
It’s easy to assume that Americans became more blasé about our sacred symbols after the Vietnam War, when the culture shifted from the anger-inducing flag-burning protests of the 1960s and ’70s to the lighthearted commercial debut of American flag Jams shorts in the ’80s. But wearing the flag as clothing, and exploiting the flag to sell your wares, goes back to the mid-19th century. Since then, the Stars and Stripes have adorned objects as wide-ranging as cigar fans, boxes of corn-salve patent medicine, Native American papoose carriers, and Nokia cell phones.
Kit Hinrichs—a celebrated graphic designer and author based in San Francisco—has collected it all. He now has more than 5,000 American flags and related memorabilia collection. Hinrichs says his patriotic obsession started decades ago when he was a young schoolboy.
“My family’s only heirloom was a tattered and patched thirty-six star Civil War flag sewn by my great-great-great aunt Ida Pepperkorn in 1865,” he writes in his 2001 book with Delphine Hirasuna and Terry Heffernan, Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag. “My mom considered it so precious that she kept it wrapped in tissue in a sturdy department-store box, and she stored it in the safest place in the house—under her bed.”
When Hinrichs was allowed to take the flag to school for show-and-tell, “Aunt Ida’s flag received more ooohs and aaahs than the run-of-the-mill pet rabbit, horned toad, and bird’s nest,” he continues. “That was my proudest moment in first grade.” When he became the caretaker this precious flag in his 20s, he had it framed and displayed prominently in his New York City apartment.
As a designer, the inherent visual clout of the Stars and Stripes fascinated him, as well as all the permutations of the flag’s design that have popped everywhere in American culture for 150 years.
“By any standard, the American flag has brand value that every corporation would envy,” he writes. “In terms of pure graphic strength, the Stars and Stripes is distinct and compelling. People recognize it even in snippets of color and pattern. … I have found flags frozen in ice cream, made of broken tile and cemented in a wall, carved in tree trunks, baked in cookies, molded in Jell-O, etched in granite, made of pressed flowers, and sprinkled with red, silver, and blue glitter by a Haitian-American immigrant.”
In the book’s introduction, Gerard C. Wertkin, the former director of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, writes that American flag motifs also appear in antique “quilts, needlework samplers, trade signs, whirligigs, weather vanes, even a sprightly megaphone.”
By now, you’ve probably heard that historians don’t believe Betsy Ross designed the first American flag. Evidence suggests the design was decided by Francis Hopkinson, a commissioner on the Continental Congress’ Navy Board, who requested (and was denied) a “quarter cask of wine” for his efforts, dismissed as “little assistances,” Wertkin explains.
The design was very similar to the Continental Colors, or the Grand Union Flag, already being flown by American colonists, which had 13 alternating red-and-white stripes and a canton made up of a blue field overlaid with the red cross of St. George of England and the white cross of St. Andrew of Scotland. The new flag would ditch the references to British rule and replace the crosses with a star for each colony. The Continental Congress adopted the new flag design on June 14, 1777, with little fanfare.
“By the late 1890s, the Stars and Stripes could be seen on everything from pincushions and pillowcases to clown costumes and pickled pork.”
That’s because—and this may come as a shock to you—early Americans, including the Founding Fathers, weren’t big flag-wavers. The American flag was a pesky military matter with a vital and practical purpose, to distinguish “our” ships, bases, and militias from “theirs.” Because the Flag Resolution only described the canton thusly, “the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation,” there is significant variation among the earliest Star-Spangled Banners.
“The Founding Fathers left much undefined, including the size and number of points on each star, their arrangement on the blue field, and the width of the red and white stripes,” Wertkin writes. “As a result of this vagueness, flag makers did pretty much as they pleased, arranging stars of varying sizes, five-pointed and otherwise, in concentric circles, staggered rows, larger star patterns, geometric shapes, and random order.”
Nearly two decades after the American Revolution, the flag became a mild nuisance for Congress again, when Kentucky and Vermont became states in 1794, Wertkin explains. Replacing the flag with one of 15 stars and 15 stripes would cost a pretty penny, just for the Merchant Marines alone, but Congress resolved to do it. However, as the United States expanded westward with five states joining the Union in 1818, Congress realized the “stripe for each state” mandate would prove impractical and reverted back to 13 stripes, representing the 13 original American colonies. Between 1818 and 1912, the United States flag received 28 more stars, meaning its appearance continually changed for a century.
Perhaps the first person to get starry-eyed over the Stars and Stripes was Francis Scott Key, who wrote the poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after watching British warships attack Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. Four years later, the poem was set to the tune of the well-loved British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
But what Wertkin refers to as a “flag cult” didn’t start until 1861, when seven Southern States ceded from the Union, formed a new government called the Confederate States of America, and attacked the U.S. Army’s Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, launching the Civil War. Then, the Confederate army had its own flag (which is not the so-called Rebel Flag that we think of as the Confederate flag today). American citizens declared their devotion to the original Union by waving the Star-Spangled Banner over homes, mantles, schools, churches, and chambers of commerce.
“Reverence for the flag intensified into a civil religion with the sight of the Stars and Stripes accompanying men going off to war and draping the coffins of fallen soldiers,” Wertkin writes. “Yankee mothers even taught their daughters to make small flags—sometimes called Bible flags because they were tucked into the family Bible—to foster patriotic devotion. The Star-Spangled Banner resonated emotionally with citizens who displayed their loyalty and affection by integrating the flag motif into everyday life.”
After the war, the American Centennial of 1876, along with the Philadelphia World’s Fair that year, only solidified the newfound importance of the flag as a patriotic symbol. It was also a time when new technology, including photography and offset lithography, led to an explosion of advertising, such as tin signs, product tins and labels, trade cards, pinbacks, and paper hand fans.
“Politicians and merchants, quick to capitalize on the cult of the flag, appropriated the popular icon for their own purposes,” Wertkin writes. “Politicians printed their campaign slogans and portraits on flag banners, and merchants unabashedly wrapped their wares in flag packaging and made the Stars and Stripes part of their trademark.
“By the late 1890s, the Stars and Stripes could be seen on everything from pincushions and pillowcases to clown costumes and pickled pork,” he continues. “In the absence of official flag guidelines, flag makers, commercial enterprises, and private citizens were free to follow their own fancy—and did.”
“By any standard, the American flag has brand value that every corporation would envy. People recognize it even in snippets of color and pattern.”
While all these commercial and political products were bombarding the market in the late 19th century, the piously patriotic had much more lofty and solemn goals for the American flag in American culture. “Veterans groups and women’s hereditary societies embraced the flag as the vehicle for teaching young people proper moral code, patriotism, and respect for cultural institutions,” Wertkin writes.
Such groups as the Grand Army of the Republic launched into action, urged lawmakers to require that the American flag be flown at all public schools, and encouraged churches to do so as well, Wertkin explains. In 1892, Francis Bellamy wrote “The Pledge of Allegiance,” which was published in a magazine called “The Youth’s Companion” and republished on leaflets that were dispatched to schools across the United States so that all schoolchildren could read it out loud for Columbus Day celebrations. Soon, saying “The Pledge” became a daily ritual at schools, even though Congress didn’t make it official until 1942.
And of course, even back in the 1890s, “patriotic societies charged that the blatant commercial exploitation of the flag was cheapening the nation’s most revered symbol and lobbied to protect it from rampant desecration.”
To quash this crass commercialization and abuse of the proud Star-Spangled Banner, “more than two hundred flag committees were formed on local, state, and national levels to define proper flag usage by advertisers, merchants, and politicians,” Wertkin writes. “During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Congress approved a code of flag etiquette and a series of detailed design standards.”
Did it work? Well, despite all the modern rules and regulations around Old Glory, we still have American flag Hammer pants, Stars-and-Stripes bikinis, and any number of star-spangled atrocities you can name. By contrast, the mostly antique and vintage objects in Hinrichs’ flag memorabilia collection are far more beautiful and interesting to behold. But back in the day, many felt these objects—borne out of advertising, campaigning, protest, or straight-up propaganda—were just as disrespectful of the hallowed American banner.
During World War II, a quartermaster in the U.S. Army created this flag out of postage stamps and cancellation marks. He formed the stripes from 2-cent red stamps, alternated with envelope cancellation marks from states that were part of the 13 colonies. The blue field is made up of 5-cent stamps, and the stars are cancellation marks from the capitol of each state, placed in the order the states were admitted to the Union. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from the San Francisco Center for the Book exhibition catalog, Flags on Paper)
(For more information and images from Kit Hinrichs’ American flag collection, please pick up a copy of the book “Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag,” written and edited by Hinrichs and Delphine Hirasuna, with photographs by Terry Heffernan. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)