History of the American flag

Discussion in 'American Flag History' started by dubhda2, Jan 18, 2008.

  1. dubhda2

    dubhda2 New Member

    This is my first post, I wrote this for my own benefit but would appreciate input/corrections, etc.

    EUROPEAN ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN FLAG.

    1) THE STRIPES

    1a) WHY USE MULTIPLE STRIPES?
    Stitched horizontal stripes are the best design to combat tattering of the flag’s fly –always a problem at sea – and so were adopted by a number of countries’ and ports’ merchant ships (Algeria [17th century], Bremen, England [anything up to 23 stripes!], Greece, Konigsberg, Netherlands [1673], Portugal (coastal), Reval, Rotterdam, Sally (Morocco), Texas Navy [originally]; Tripolitania [17th century], Tunisia [1842]; Uruguay, Wismar). On land, and on men-o’-war, the more familiar national flags were more usual.
    American colonists would be very familiar with the merchant ensigns of Europe, especially those of the Netherlands (the official flag of the country at that time being a horizontal tricolor of orange, white, medium blue – modified for the Dutch East India Company – which formed the basis for their multiple-striped merchant flag), and especially, later, of Britain which, while having a national flag based on crosses, nevertheless for trading vessels used the multiple-striped pattern of red, white and blue repeated.
    Given this familiarity, and a desire not to copy a previous national flag design, it would be natural to adopt the multiple-striped pattern for the ‘Continental Colors’ 1775-7.

    1b) WHY RED-AND-WHITE STRIPES?
    Although an early design was used in Jacobean times (5 red, 4 white stripes – notably by the East India Company), from 1665 the East India Co. were using the 13 stripes we know today (7 red, 6 white, first with the St. George cross canton, from 1707 with a Union canton) and the availability of these flags may well have influenced the decision – especially as it would have seemed apposite given the number of Colonies; furthermore the red and white stripes of the Washington arms may have reinforced this choice and would distinguish the flag from the usual red-white-blue of general British merchantmen (though it should be pointed out that the American merchant ensign was, for some reason, 13 stripes of red-white-blue for a while in the 1780s, by 1795 it was red-and-white [neither with a canton]). The Philadelphia Light Horse standard bore a canton of 13 stripes in 1775 but they were 7 blue, 6 white, Tallmadge’s Dragoons similarly had a canton of 13, 7 pink, 6 white stripes.

    2) THE CANTON

    2a) WHY HAVE A CANTON?
    This was an accepted ‘difference’ added to the hoist of generally stripey flags to indicate nationality for many countries, and from at least Elizabethan times in England (when it was a red cross on white). Having it at the top allowed the distress signal to be an inverted flag. Putting it at the fly would have been counter-productive in view of tattering.

    2b) WHY A BLUE CANTON?
    The East India Co's. merchant flag of the time of the Revolution had a (square) canton of the then Union Flag – which had an obvious dark blue background. This version was used in colonial times and adopted by the revolutionaries Jan. 1776 to June 14 1777 as the “Grand Union Flagâ€. On independence the choice of color for the American flag canton seems obvious now, given the use of stars – but it could have been red stars on white just as easily (and indeed the Guilford Flag of 1781 had blue stars on white; the Easton Flag had white stars on blue. The Power Squadron uses a red canton, the Coast Guards a white one.

    3) THE STARS

    3a) WHY USE STARS?
    Again, the shield of the Washington family from the 12th century had a row of three 5-pointed stars across the top and this is supposed to have suggested the idea. A 14th century stained-glass window in Selby Abbey (north Yorkshire, England) depicts the family arms with the original mullets, i.e., pierced stars. Other symbols could have been chosen (Colonel Moultrie flew a white crescent moon over Fort Sullivan and South Carolina still does on its “Palmetto Flagâ€; the Bedford Flag bears ann armored arm with sword; New York had a beaver; the Culpepper Flag , the Gadsen Flag, the South Carolina Navy ensign, and the Continental Navy jack all bore a rattlesnake with the [unpunctuated] motto “DONT TREAD ON MEâ€; the Bunker Hill Flag, the Continental Flag, Washington’s Cruisers’ ensign, and the older New England flag all had a pine tree motif).


    3b) WHY 5-POINTED STARS?
    Though The Life Guards flag stars had 6 points (as true heraldic stars should); on the Rhode Island "Hope" troops’ flag the ‘stars’ were 5-pointed – perhaps indicating its military use. Washington's ‘stars’ must have originally meant spur-rowels because at the time the family were granted arms, stars (called estoilles) were depicted with six wavy arms (one of the many symbols of Christianity) whereas rowels (usually called mullets) were 5-pointed and pierced (a symbol of knighthood), though these distinctions were later forgotten.

    The Hulbert and Life Guards Flag stars were 6-pointed; the Guilford Flag of 1781 had 8-pointed blue stars on white; the Bennington [Vermont Militia] Flag and the Texel Flag of John Paul Jones had 7-pointed stars [like present-day Australia]; the Easton Flag had 8-pointed white stars on blue. The first instance I can find of the 5-pointed star is on the National Stars and Stripes of 1777.

    3c) WHY ONE STAR PER STATE?
    After all, the canton need have had only one star in total (like Central Africa, Chile, Djibiouti, Guinea-Bissau, Jordan, Panama, Puerto Rico, Texas, Togo), given that the number was already indicated by the stripes, especially as 13 was an awkward number to set out. The idea of making the number of stars indicate the number of colonies appears to have originated in the flag of the Life Guard of Washington as Commander-in-Chief (though it is now an accepted practice for many flags worldwide). On this flag the stars each indicating one of the Colonies represented in the Colonial Army. The Rhode island “Hope†troops’ flag included a very similar canton.

    3d) WHY ARE THE STARS IN A RECTANGULAR GRID?
    Although this layout for the canton of the Stars and Stripes was adopted from the second National Flag it was not specified until Jan. 24 1912 and people were left to their own devices (circles [1st National; 3rd Maryland Regt.; Providence Artillery; Easton Militia], squares [Rhode island], arcs [Bennington], ellipses, diamonds [Hulbert’s], ‘grand stars’ [a single star made up of smaller ones]). What is more the original intention (that the 13 stars should represent ‘a new constellation’), does not readily bring to mind a rectangle. The Bennington Flag had an arc of 11 stars plus one in each fillet; the 3rd Maryland Regiment had a circle of 12 plus one central [as did the Easton Militia Flag of 1812]; the Hulbert Flag [Long Island Militia; the very first “Stars and Stripes†of 1776] had a square diamond 1,3,5,3,1); the first National “Stars-and-Stripes†had a circle of 13 in 1777. Since the Army did not normally carry the Stars and Stripes (it was used as a garrison flag), for General Fremont’s expedition to the Far West a new version was designed in the 1840s – the canton being two horizontal wavy lines of 13 stars separated by the American bald eagle.

    3e) WHAT IS THE CORRECT ORIENTATION FOR EACH STAR?
    Most people expect each star to have one point upper most, but there’s no law, simply a government recommendation to this effect. The Smithsonian’ s 15-star banner has ‘dancing stars’ (alternate columns of slightly canted to fly, slightly canted to hoist, so all tilted).

    4) GENERAL

    4a) WHY ONE STAR PER STATE BUT ONLY 13 STRIPES?
    Originally the idea was to increase both stars AND stripes and this was done up to 15 (which applied May 1 1795 for 23 years, so it is THIS version which featured in “The Star Spangled Bannerâ€), but it became apparent when 20 were required that more stripes meant a less distinctive pattern so the original 13 were reinstated July 4 1818 (but with increased number of stars).

    4b) WHY ARE THE PROPORTIONS 10 by 19?
    In modern times superpowers generally have flags 10 x 20 (e.g., U.K. & hence many Commonwealth countries, Communist Russia, etc.), earlier they and most other countries had flags of 20 x 30. However, in order to specify the design of the Stars and Stripes in simple figures it was found easier to adopt 10 by 19. Thus the length of the canton is 7.6 (99/13), its height 5.385 (70/13), diameter of exscribed circle around points of stars 0.615 (8/13).

    5) SUMMARY.
    [FONT=&quot]The unproven assertions that Betsy Ross or Francis Hopkinson designed the Stars and Stripes are not really needed – America used the normal East Indies Co. merchant flag until 1777 when the Union canton was replaced by a version of the Lifeguards’ Flag – and this was the only alteration! Washington ascribed meanings to the various parts of the flag but this was after it was established.

    Duibhda2
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  2. Peter Ansoff

    Peter Ansoff USA Flag Site Admin

    This is my first post, I wrote this for my own benefit but would appreciate input/corrections, etc.

    Hi, welcome to the forum!

    As you probably know, there are two problems with the early history of the American flag. First, the historical sources are very scanty -- we have a few solid pieces of information, but there are many gaps. The second, which is a bit more subtle, is that our 18th century ancestors didn't look at the flag the same way we do. To them, it was a practical problem: they needed a distinctive flag to identify their ships, forts and army headquarters. They weren't concerned with the fine points of design and symbolism or with exact or consistent specifications. Modern writers tend to come up with all sorts of elaborate explanations for things that just didn't matter in an 18th century context.

    With those introductory thoughts, here are some comments on your essay. I've tried to put your original text in italics so that it's clear who is speaking -- sometimes this screwy editor does funny things, and I apologize in advance if any of it is confusing:

    Stitched horizontal stripes are the best design to combat tattering of the flag’s fly –always a problem at sea – and so were adopted by a number of countries’ and ports’ merchant ships

    This is actually not true -- in fact, it's just the opposite. Sewn horizontal stripes tend to separate along the seams -- you'll frequently see that in modern US flags that have been flogging in the wind too long.

    American colonists would be very familiar with the merchant ensigns of Europe, . . .Given this familiarity, and a desire not to copy a previous national flag design, it would be natural to adopt the multiple-striped pattern for the ‘Continental Colors’ 1775-7.

    I think that it was really much simpler than that. It seems fairly clear that the Continental Colors was created in Philadelphia in the fall of 1775, as an ensign for the new Continental Navy. The first references to it are in a letter written by a member of the Marine Committee, probably in December, and the reports of two British spies. The first ships of the Continental Navy were converted merchant ships, and already had merchant ensigns (red with the British union). The logical assumption is that someone had the idea of differencing the existing ensigns by adding stripes. (We actually have a documented case in which a ship chandler provided "an ensign converted to a Continental one" for a Massachusetts ship.) White was the obvious color because undyed cloth was available and cheap. It wasn't the only choice, however -- at least one of them seems to have had red and green stripes.

    furthermore the red and white stripes of the Washington arms may have reinforced this choice

    There is no evidence whatsoever that Washington's arms had anything to do with the design of the American flag, and it really wouldn't make any sense for them to have. Washington was not "the father of his country" yet in 1775 -- he was an important and respected military leader, but he was not the head of the government, and there would be no reason to base the flag on his arms. Also, as already noted, the flag was created for use by the Navy, and Washington had nothing to do with the Navy -- he was the Commander-in-Chief of the army.

    would distinguish the flag from the usual red-white-blue of general British merchantmen . . .nevertheless for trading vessels used the multiple-striped pattern of red, white and blue repeated.

    The British merchant flag during the period of the revolution was the red ensign, with no stripes. As noted above, the Continental Colors was probably based on this flag, with the stripes added to make it distinctive.

    WHY HAVE A CANTON?

    Again, the Continental Colors was based on the British red ensign, which had a canton.

    The East India Co's. merchant flag of the time of the Revolution had a (square) canton of the then Union Flag – which had an obvious dark blue background.

    Yes, and so did the British naval and merchant ensigns.

    This version was used in colonial times

    Actually no -- it seems to have been created in the Fall of 1775.

    On independence the choice of color for the American flag canton seems obvious now, given the use of stars

    Probably true -- the imagery described in the resolution of 14 June 1777 was of a "new constellation," which would suggest a grouping of stars against a dark sky. The symbolism was straightforward -- a new grouping of stars in the heavens, representing a new grouping of states on earth.

    the shield of the Washington family from the 12th century had a row of three 5-pointed stars across the top and this is supposed to have suggested the idea.

    Again, there is no evidence that Washington's arms had anything to do with the American flag. My guess (and it's only a guess!) is that Hopkinson's original concept had real, heraldic stars with wavy points, but that straight points were used when making the actual flags because they were easier to make.

    As to why stars as opposed to another device: most of the symbols that you mention (crescent, beaver, tree) had local associations and would not have been contenders for a national flag. (Altough there are a couple of interesting hints that there was an interm New England ensign with stripes and a tree in the canton). The rattlesnake might have been a contender. A coiled snake, like the one on the Gadsden flag, would have been somewhat impractical on a naval ensign, since it would have had to be sewn rather than painted.

    [unpunctuated] motto “DONT TREAD ON MEâ€

    We don't actually know that for certain -- there are no actual examples, or even contemporary pictures.

    Though The Life Guards flag stars had 6 points (as true heraldic stars should); on the Rhode Island "Hope" troops’ flag the ‘stars’ were 5-pointed - perhaps indicating its military use.

    I assume that the "Life Guards flag" refers to the one that's currently in the museum at Valley Forge (blue with white stars). The most recent scholarship seems to say that that it was actually an artillery flag, and had nothing directly to do with Washington. True heraldic stars actually had wavy points, as already noted. *Both* of these flags had military use. I think that the most straightforward explanation for the different number of points was simply that it didn't matter -- each flag maker did it the way that he or she wanted to.

    The first instance I can find of the 5-pointed star is on the National Stars and Stripes of 1777.

    Actually, most of the contemporary images that we have of Revolutionary War-era stars and stripes have 6 points. As already noted, we really have no idea what Hopkinson's original concept looked like.

    WHY ARE THE STARS IN A RECTANGULAR GRID?

    Here again, there is very little consistency in contemporary images. Most of the flags that you mention (3rd MD Regiment, Providence Artillery, Bennington, Hulbert) are probably not actually Revolutionary War era flags.

    The idea of making the number of stars indicate the number of colonies appears to have originated in the flag of the Life Guard of Washington as Commander-in-Chief (though it is now an accepted practice for many flags worldwide). On this flag the stars each indicating one of the Colonies represented in the Colonial Army.

    I think that you are making this too complicated. The American flag was based on the British red ensign. The canton of the red ensign symbolised the union of the nations that made up the United Kingdom (that's why it was called the "union"). It would have been quite natural to want a corresponding symbol for the union of the 13 states. And, again, the flag was created primarily for the use of the Navy rather than the Army.

    The Rhode island “Hope†troops’ flag included a very similar canton.

    Yes -- it was a standard-pattern regimental color. Here again, we copied British practice. Their regimental colors were a plain field with the regimental insignia, and the union in the canton.

    Most people expect each star to have one point upper most, but there’s no law, simply a government recommendation to this effect.

    It's a little more than a recommendation -- it's presidential Executive Order than specifies the design of flags to be used by the executive branch of the government (which includes the armed forces). It's true that flags made for civilian use don't have to follow it, but most do (more or less!).

    WHY ARE THE PROPORTIONS 10 by 19?

    Again, because those were (more or less) the proportions of British ensigns at the time. The proportions were a fallout of the standard widths in which cloth was manufactured -- they defined the length of the flag as so-many-feet per half-breath of material. The standard widths were changed in the 19th century, so British flags became "skinnier." It's interesting that the US did not follow suit -- that would be a good subject for some research.

    it was found easier to adopt 10 by 19. Thus the length of the canton is 7.6 (99/13), its height 5.385 (70/13), diameter of exscribed circle around points of stars 0.615 (8/13).

    That doesn't sound "easier" to me! (-;

    The unproven assertions that Betsy Ross or Francis Hopkinson designed the Stars and Stripes are not really needed

    Well *somebody* came up with the idea of replacing the British union crosses with stars. Hopkinson seems to be the best candidate -- he was in a position to do it, he was interested in art and heraldry, he said that he did it, and nobody disagreed. No one has ever seriously claimed the Betsy Ross designed the Stars and Stripes.

    – America used the normal East Indies Co. merchant flag until 1777

    This is another of those myths, for which there is no real evidence. And, it really doesn't make sense. Why would the Americans use the EIC flag? The EIC was the enemy -- in fact, there was an American privateer named the Hyder Ally, after an Indian leader who was fighting against the EIC. It's true that the two flags looked almost the same, but it's hard to imagine any connection other than coincidence.

    For what it's worth, most Americans had probably never seen the EIC flag. EIC ships did not trade with the colonies, and in any case they were forbidden to fly the EIC flag in the Atlantic north of St. Helena. Conversely, American ships did not trade with India before the Revolution -- the EIC had a monpoly on such trade (that was its reason for existing). There were pirates, of course . . . (-;

    the Union canton was replaced by a version of the Lifeguards’ Flag

    Again, the "Lifeguards Flag" seems to have been an artillery flag. Also, it's not clear that this flag existed before the Stars and Stripes was created -- it could just as easily have been the other way around.

    Well, you asked for comments . . . <BG> Anyway, thanks for joining the forum -- hope you enjoy it.

    Best,

    Peter Ansoff
     

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