Remembering the U.S. Flag on Its Birthday


The Flag Resolution Passed by the Continental Congress on 14 June 1777 is the flag’s birth certificate.

Interviewers often ask “What is the most interesting thing about the U.S. flag that people don’t know?”  As a flag historian, I find many things about the flag fascinating, but perhaps the most surprising thing is the popularity of the 13-Star flag.  While there have been many millions of 48-Star and 50-Star flag made in the last hundred years, the 13-Star flag has been in constant production since 1777 when the Stars and Stripes flag design was adopted by the Continental Congress.

Old Fort Flag of Winter 1847

We are most familiar with this version of the 13-Star flag which is known as the Betsy Ross flag.

When people find an old 13-Star flag in the attack they usually conclude that it must be a relic of the American Revolution.  However, most of these old flags—notwithstanding the fact that they show only thirteen stars—were made many years after the Revolution ended.  The usual clue that indicates this fact is that most of these old flags are sewn with a sewing machine or they may be printed.  In either instance, that means these flag were probably made during the last half of the Nineteenth Century or later.

But why were 13-Star flags made for so many years after the count of stars increased in the official U.S. flag?  There are many reasons, but here are a few:

  • It was easier to sew a flag with 13 stars since each star had to be appliquéd or embroidered separately.
  • 13-Star flags were made as historical replicas for programs commemorating the American Revolution.
  • The Centennial of 1876 and the Bicentennial of 1976 created a great demand for these historical reproductions.
  • The U.S. Navy used a 13-Star pattern for Boat Flags that were flown from small watercraft  that carried sailors and officers ashore from their warships.

Perhaps it is because Americans fell in love with the 13-Star flag when it was first adopted.  While the number of stars in the flag has continued to increase over the years, the 13-Star flag is the original.

Also surprising to many people is the fact that the 13-Star flag design we recognize today was only one of several 13-Star patterns that were used when the flag was new.  We are most familiar with the pattern showing the 13 stars displayed in a circle.  However, the flag was often made with a variety of designs displaying a varying number of stars in a varying number of rows.  For example, the stars were often shown in a staggered pattern with five rows of 3,2,3,2 & 3 stars.  Another version showed three rows of 4, 5 & 4 stars.  Even if the stars were displayed in a circle, there might be 12 stars in the circle with one star at the circle’s center.  I could even be 10 stars in the circle with three stars forming a triangle at the circle’s center.

Mystery 13 Star Flag Color

This pattern of 13 stars was seen on a flag that was said to date from 1847 and may have been the U.S. flag carried into the Salt Lake Valley by the Mormon Battalion.

However the stars were arranged, the 13-Star flag was the original Stars & Stripes, and Saturday, 14 June is the flags 237th birthday.  Happy Birthday, Old Glory.

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