Why were stars chosen to represent the states?

Discussion in 'American Flag History' started by BarryB, Apr 29, 2008.

  1. BarryB

    BarryB New Member

    A student asked me why the flag has stars to represent the states (as opposed to some other symbol such as moons or suns or circles). Is there any precursor to the stars on other early symbols or related flags?
     
  2. Peter Ansoff

    Peter Ansoff USA Flag Site Admin

    Greetings, Barry!

    A student asked me why the flag has stars to represent the states (as opposed to some other symbol such as moons or suns or circles).

    The short answer is that nobody knows. The resolution of the Continental Congress in 1777 said that "the union [shall] be thirteen stars white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." The symbolism was clear -- a new constellation of stars in the sky, a new union of states on earth. However, there is no record of who wrote that resolution, or of any discussion of it by the Congress or anyone else. The only hint is that it appears in the middle of a list of resolutions dealing with Navy matters. This makes sense, because the primary purpose of the flag was to identify American ships.

    Although the evidence is not conclusive, most historians believe that the idea for the stars in the union originated with Francis Hopkinson. He was the chairman of the Navy Board, and also had an interest in poetry and art. For what it's worth, Hopkinson's personal coat-of-arms had stars on it.

    An interesting techincal point is that, in the language of heraldry, a "star" has wavy points, not straight points like the stars on the flag. On a coat of arms, a straight-pointed figure is called a "mullet" or a "spur rowel" -- it is supposed to depict the little jagged wheel on a horseman's spur, and sometimes it has a hole in the middle where the shaft would go through. The stars on Hopkinson's coat-of-arms were real heraldic stars, with wavy points. My thought is that they were straight-pointed on the flag simply because they were easier to cut out and sew on that way.

    I hope this sort of answers your question -- sorry it's not more definitive!

    Peter Ansoff
     
  3. BarryB

    BarryB New Member

    Thank you for your answer. Even though the answer is not as yet definitively known, you have provided enough background information for me to pass on to the inquiring student. Think how much more employment there would have been for seamstresses if the Congress had gone for "wavy pointed" stars!
     
  4. Peter Ansoff

    Peter Ansoff USA Flag Site Admin

    Think how much more employment there would have been for seamstresses if the Congress had gone for "wavy pointed" stars!

    How true! I wonder what an 18th-century seamstress would think of the modern US flag -- it would be pretty tedious to have to sew on 50 little stars (or 100, if you made them two-sided!)

    Someone could probably write an interesting paper on the historical relationship between flag design and flag manufacturing technology. I bet you could make a case that older national flags tended to be simpler designs just because they were easier to make.

    Peter Ansoff
     

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