While the American flag’s foundation was laid during the American Revolutionary War, the country’s growth, vague laws, and new precedents allowed the flag to evolve along with the country.
During the American Revolutionary War, the American Flag’s symbolism translated well to an attractive flag design. Thirteen states were represented by 13 stars and 13 stripes. But things became complicated by the additions of Vermont and Kentucky in 1791 and 1792, respectively. The question became “Do we add the new states to the flag or should the flag honor the original 13 colonies?” The flag would remain as the 13 stars and stripes variant for another two years until President George Washington signed the Flag Act of 1794. Not only did this act add two more stars to the flag but two more stripes as well, making it the only U.S. flag with more than 13 stripes. This is also the variant of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.
Even though Tennessee became a state two years after the Flag Act of 1794, it would be another 23 years before the flag would change again. In fact, five states would be added to the union (Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi) before President James Monroe approved the Flag Act of 1818. This particular act set the most refined standards for the flag to date, stating that there would only be 13 stripes to honor the original colonies and that new states would be represented by a new star added on the July 4 following the state’s admission to the union.
This new standard meant that new U.S. flag designs were coming out almost every year for nearly a century to represent the new states added to the growing nation. However, there were still problems. Those of you who have read our post on the First Stars and Stripes and the myth of Betsy Ross know that the Flag Act of 1777 set no standards for the arrangement of the stars and stripes on the flag, leaving the design completely up to the flag maker. Surprisingly, this was still the case at the beginning of the 20th century. Stars on U.S. flag variants existed in various shapes, including circles, stars, and diamonds. You can even find some flags that have seven white stripes and six red stripes (instead of the traditional seven red and six white). This was finally changed in 1912 when President William Howard Taft signed an executive order declaring an official design for the newest flag representing 48 states: “six horizontal rows of eight each, a single point of each star to be upward.” Taft’s order also set the official ratio of the flag to 10:19, a somewhat unique national flag ratio shared only by Libya, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia.
The last two changes to the U.S. Flag were both approved in 1959 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first Executive Order on January 3 standardized the design representing 49 states: seven rows of seven stars staggered horizontally and vertically. The last Executive Order on August 21 of that same year would create the current design representing 50 states: nine rows of stars staggered horizontally and eleven columns of stars staggered vertically. However, this design wouldn’t become official until July 4, 1960. The 50 star design is the longest running U.S. flag variant (55 years at the time of publishing).
If you’re a regular FunFlagFact.com reader, you’ve probably noticed one fact missing that we usually cover with most national flags – what do the colors mean? No significance was ever ascribed to the colors of the Grand Union flag or the flag created under the Flag Act of 1777, so we can’t say for certain what the original creators had in mind. However, we can infer a few possible reasons why red, white, and blue were chosen. One is that the Grand Union flag was made before the colonies had declared independence and was designed to show the colonies’ allegiance to Great Britain, whose colors are red, white, and blue. Another reason is the availability of fabrics. As we said in the Grand Union flag post, the flag could have been easily made by putting un-dyed strips of fabric on a British red ensign.
However, the colors are given meaning for the Great Seal of the United States.
“The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.” – Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, 1782