A flag is a piece of fabric hung from a pole or rope, usually designed to convey information without resorting to written language. Instead, flags rely on shapes and symbols to identify groups of people, as well as to send warning signals to others. Before the horizontal flag became commonplace, a staff with a carved emblem at its top, known as a vexilloid, was raised. The fabric banners that hung vertically from these vexilloids were the precursors to modern flags.
The Scotland Saltire, or St. Andrew’s Cross, which originated in the 9th century, is the oldest European flag still in use. Along with the rise of nation-states and their militaries in the 17th century, flags with varying colors and heraldic symbols were adopted to differentiate political groups. By the 18th century, major military fleets, like the British Royal Navy, were also using signaling flags to communicate messages across long distances.
The American flag was based on the design of Great Britain’s Grand Union Flag, which included 13 alternating red-and-white stripes along with a Union Jack canton (the rectangular inset placed in the upper corner on the hoist side). Once the American Revolution was set into motion, politicians realized the emerging country needed a unique flag to signify its independence. Francis Hopkinson, the New Jersey delegate to the Second Continental Congress, was given the task of redesigning the flag and decided to replace the Union Jack with 13 white stars, one for each of the country’s new states.
The new design was adopted on June 14, 1777, by the Continental Congress with the country’s first Flag Act, which read: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” When the United States adopted its Great Seal in 1782, Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, explained that the colors of the flag also had symbolic meanings—red for hardiness and valor; white for purity and innocence; and blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
While many believe the legend of seamstress Betsy Ross making the first American flag, its accuracy is disputed by most scholars. Ross was one of many women who crafted flags in Philadelphia around the time of the American Revolution, but her grandson asserted that she created the country’s first flag. An 1893 painting of Betsy Ross by Charles Weisgerber (which was eventually mass produced in print form) turned this family myth into a popular childhood lesson about America’s founding.
In 1795, the United States flag was updated to 15 stars and stripes, though Congress reverted to the 13 original stripes in 1818, indicating that a new star would be added to the canton for every state that joined the Union. During the final battle in the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner when he saw the country’s flag flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Key finished the song in 1814, and it was declared the country’s official National Anthem in 1931.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the United States flew a flag with 33 stars. These were typically arranged in five horizontal rows, though many had their own unique designs, like those in which the stars were organized in the shape of a larger “great star.” Although the Union’s official policy was to include the stars for states that seceded after January of 1861, some individuals created their own versions with fewer stars. Meanwhile, the number continued to grow as more states were added to the country, with Kansas joining in the summer of 1861 and West Virginia in 1863...
During the war, each military regiment assigned a Color Guard to carry and safeguard its flag—often two men were in charge of the flag, with two more designated as their protectors. Some of these flags featured specific regimental colors, shapes, or words, while others represented the larger Union or Confederacy. Regimental flags were important rallying points for soldiers amid loud and confusing Civil War battlefields, and they often became the target of enemy fire.
In 1861, the Confederacy adopted its first flag known as the “Stars and Bars,” which featured three horizontal bars of equal height (one white between two red) and a blue square overlaid with a circle of seven white stars. The design was changed in 1863 to the “Stainless Banner,” a white flag with a red square canton, which was overlaid with a blue diagonal cross or “saltire” outlined in white and dotted with 13 white stars. The Confederate flag was updated a final time in 1865, whereby the canton was stretched to a rectangular shape and a vertical red bar was added on the flag’s opposite edge.
The design known today as the Southern Cross, the Dixie flag, or the “rebel flag” (and sometimes mistakenly called the Stars and Bars) is actually a modern version of the flags flown by the Army of Northern Virginia or the Second Confederate Navy, which were based on the canton of the Stainless Banner. Over the next 100 years, as resentment built among the defeated Southern states following the Civil War, this flag came to represent a certain flavor of Southern pride, inextricably bound up with the region’s systemic discrimination against African Americans.
Mississippi created a new state flag in 1894 that incorporated the canton from the second Confederate design, signifying the state’s allegiance to the secessionist ideals of the fallen Confederacy. Around the same time, Florida and Alabama also adopted elements of the Confederate design for their official flags.
As the push against racial injustice became stronger during the Civil Rights era, Southerners again rallied around the so-called Dixie flag. In 1948, the States' Rights Party, led by famous segregationist Strom Thurmond, adopted the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia to symbolize its contempt for federal civil-rights regulation. Georgia modified its official flag to include a version of the design in 1956, while South Carolina hoisted the rebel flag over its State House in 1961 as a reminder of the Union attack on Fort Sumter 100 years before. In South Carolina, the symbol of Confederate pride was finally removed in 2015, after a racially motivated shooting inspired lawmakers to rethink their support for symbols of white supremacy.
The National Flag Code, which was initially drawn up at the National Flag Conference in Washington in 1923, created procedures for displaying the American flag, prohibited its use for advertising purposes, and established criminal penalties for certain behavior. However, in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court found that desecration of the flag was protected under the First Amendment as “symbolic speech.”
American flags have frequently been placed at important locations by famous explorers, including Robert Peary at the North Pole in 1909, Barry Bishop at Mount Everest in 1963, and Neil Armstrong on the Moon in 1969. Today the American flag includes 13 horizontal stripes representing the original colonies, seven red alternating with six white, and 50 stars standing for the modern states.