How the American Flag Became Sacred—and the Hottest Brand in the Nation

July 2nd, 2019

A commercially made educational toy from the 1920s, this block set has the Stars and Stripes on one side and the alphabet on the other. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

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.

Living flags were all the rage at the start of the 20th century, but arguably none was bigger than the one created on the parade ground of the U.S. Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, in 1917. This human flag was formed by 10,000 cadets. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

“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.

This flag salesman’s sampler was produced in 1912 to introduce the new 48-star flag. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

“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.

During World War II, the American flag became a popular subject for weather vanes and lightning rods. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

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.”

Before the flag code, product packaging took enormous liberties with America’s banner, arranging the stars in different patterns, and writing all over the flag, as we see on this trade card for United States Playing Cards by the Russell & Morgan Printing Company of Cincinnati. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

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.

Starting in the early 20th century, patriotic needlework patterns, like the one used to make this “Solid as the Oak” pillow cover (circa 1900), could be traced from women’s magazines or purchased at department stores. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

“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.

In the early 20th century, Plains Indians began making souvenir gauntlet gloves based on those worn by the U.S. Cavalry. This type of floral design, as seen on these glass-beaded gloves from 1960s, was often inspired by images in magazines. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

“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.

Dozens of American flags adorned this vintage Fourth of July parade dress. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

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)

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)

cards2-600

During the Civil War, thousands of letters were sent to loved ones. Both Union and Confederate troops used flag-embellished envelopes to assert their loyalties and values. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from the San Francisco Center for the Book exhibition catalog, Flags on Paper)

pencils-600

At the turn of the 20th century, teaching love of country was as important to public schools as teaching writing and arithmetic. The American flag motif appeared on everything from lunch pails to slate markers used for writing on slate boards, like those shown above, circa 1890. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

flag_envelope

Before writing or printing on the flag was prohibited in 1934, full-bleed flag envelopes were common. This envelope, depicting the 45-star flag (1896-1908), was addressed to the U.S. Senator Chauncey Depew, who was in office from 1899-1911. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from the San Francisco Center for the Book exhibition catalog, Flags on Paper)

ribbons

Beginning in 1862, political ribbons began featuring finely detailed words and images thanks to a silk-weaving technique called Stevengraph, invented by English ribbon maker Thomas Stevens using a Jacquard loom. The first Stevengraphs appeared as bookmarks, which were later followed by other formats such as postcards. This selection includes Stevengraphs, as well as traditional printed, stamped, and embroidered ribbons. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

handkerchief

Campaign slogans and political giveaways—like this 1888 printed silk Benjamin Harrison handkerchief—proliferated in the late 19th century as printing technology became more affordable and presidential candidates were forced to wage a cross-continental campaign. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

flask

Every war produced its share of memorabilia, from needle tins and perfumed cards to wall calendars and banners. This whiskey flask honors George Dewey, Admiral of the Navy, best known for his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War in 1898. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

needles-600

Between acts of heroism, Spanish-American soldiers and sailors performed such mundane personal chores as darning and mending their uniforms. These patriotic U.S. Army and Navy needle books from 1898 were printed in Germany. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

boot-and-shoe

Printing advertising messages on the flag's stripes was common practice in the middle to late 19th century. Patriotic groups took offense to such commercial abuses and lobbied for a code of flag etiquette. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

matches-600

Because cigar and cigarette brands had thousands of competitors in the early 20th century, they tried to win customers' loyalty by offering collectible giveaways like this patriotic "silk." (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

flags_fruitcans

Old Glory canned fruit: The American flag was emblazoned on hundreds of commercial products after the Civil War. The practice ended in 1930 when Congress passed a code of flag etiquette to end commercial exploitation of the flag. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from the San Francisco Center for the Book exhibition catalog, Flags on Paper)

soap

Until the nation adopted an official flag-etiquette code in 1934, advertisers used the Stars and Stripes on trade cards promoting products like Williams' Genuine Yankee Soap. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

advertising

The American flag was featured in trade cards and handbills for products like Fairbank's Fairy Soap (slogan "the two best things that float"); Dr. Ward's Celebrated Jersey Corn Salve, "a positive and painless cure for hard & soft corns, bunions, warts, moles, callouses, etc."; and Williams, Clark & Company's High Grade Bone Fertilizer, made of "ammoniated dissolved bones." (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

flags_product_labels

These companies—selling sewing machines, candy, crackers, cookies, cornmeal, cigars, paint, shoes, and hotel rooms—aligned their brands with the flag to suggest buying their wares was a patriotic gesture. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from the San Francisco Center for the Book exhibition catalog, Flags on Paper)

cards-600

Trimming public buildings for patriotic occasions was a special skill that was much in demand in the early 20th century. Professional bunting decorators traveled around the country taking commissions from towns, civic organizations, and political groups. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

p10-11+fc-26

Sold at world's fairs, in tourist gift shops, and at special events, commemorative spoons have been popular collectibles for more than a century. Patriotic motifs have been perennial best-sellers. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

flags_political_postcards

Early in the 20th century, printers would sell postcards with blank spaces that would be filled with photographic images of different candidates. These postcards are from the 1908 presidential race between Secretary of War and Republican Party nominee William Howard Taft and three-time Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from the San Francisco Center for the Book exhibition catalog, Flags on Paper)

pins

Rhinestone American flag brooches have been worn by patriotic women since the early 20th century. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

flag-dress-600

During World War I parades, women would dress as "Lady Liberty" by wearing American flags like togas, as seen on this postcard. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from the San Francisco Center for the Book exhibition catalog, Flags on Paper)

pillow

Satin pillowcases printed with sentimental verses and patriotic pictures were popular souvenirs during World War I. The decorative pillowcases were easy to mail home and parents proudly displayed them in their parlors to show they had sons serving overseas. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

cases

The simplicity of the brass-and-wood compacts from World War I and World War II contrasts sharply with the rhinestone-and-enamel compacts of peacetime. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

fc-5

The 48 silk stars were appliquéd to this hand-crocheted folk-art flag from circa 1930. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

clown-600

Mechanical tin toys, like this windup clown from the 1930s, have been popular with children for generations. Patriotic icons like Uncle Sam, American soldiers, circus figures, and Lady Liberty were popular subjects. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

buckle

This early 20th-century brass belt buckle features a 48-star American flag made of enamel. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

pinbox

This cardboard-and-cotton patriotic shield nesting box incorporates the familiar Stars and Stripes design motif. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

beadwork

Forced to live on reservations with few natural resources, Native Americans survived by adapting their craft skills to objects that would appeal to the tourist trade, like this beaded coin purse from circa 1940. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

genocide

The American flag design motif also made for impactful protest posters like this 1970 "Genocide Records!" poster. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

print

Designer and "Graphis" magazine publisher B. Martin Pedersen boldly illustrated the diminishing power of the Native American over the centuries in this 1975 limited-edition print called "Indian Power." (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

3d-souvenir

"Time" magazine sent this three-dimensional flag to advertisers in 1982 as a Fourth of July promotion. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

nokia-600

To promote its national free-roaming cell phone program, AT&T used the Stars and Stripes to represent the breadth of America in its 1999 advertising campaign. (Courtesy Kit Hinrichs, from Long May She Wave)

(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.)


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.




z