In the United States, Flag Day is celebrated on June 14 and commemorates the Second Continental Congress passing the Flag Act of 1777.
While the passage of this act is seen as a very important event today, it wasn’t that big of deal in 1777. A major reason why is that the concept of a national flag was very new during the late 18th century, and those that did exist were ensigns – national flags used exclusively on sailing ships. When combined with the fact that the Flag Resolution of 1777 was created by the Continental Congress’ Marine Committee, it seems very likely that the “stars and stripes” design was intended to be an ensign. The act is also surprisingly vague in its description of the flag’s design, particularly the stars. This lead to many different 13 star “constellations” showing up on early American flags, featuring anywhere from five to eight-pointed stars.
A popular design that many people falsely attribute as being the original “Stars and Stripes” is called the Betsy Ross flag – a design featuring a circle of 13 five-pointed stars facing outward. Not only was this design not the first American flag, Betsy Ross may not have even designed or sewed it (you can read more about the myth and legend of Betsy Ross here).
While we cannot be 100 percent certain who designed the first Stars and Stripes flag, historical records point to a very likely candidate – Francis Hopkinson. Not only was he Chairman of the Continental Navy Board’s Middle Department (remember that the Marine Committee proposed the Flag Resolution of 1777), but he was the only person to claim that he or she designed the flag during his or her lifetime (you can read more about Hopkinson and the first Stars and Stripes here). Hopkinson’s design featured 13 six-pointed stars in alternating rows of three and two across.
It would be over a century before the U.S. Flag’s anniversary started to get recognition. The first recorded celebration of a Flag Day was in 1885 at the Stony Hill School in Waubeka, Wisconsin. This celebration was spearheaded by school teacher Bernard Cigrand, who would spend the next several decades advocating for a National Flag Day, stressing the importance of patriotism. Cigrand eventual became the president of the American Flag Day Association and later the National Flag Day Society.
Though there would be a handful of other local flag day observances in the late 1800s, President Woodrow Wilson was the first to proclaim June 14 as a National Flag Day in 1916. However, this was just a one-off proclamation not intended to become an annual holiday. Eventually, some states began celebrating Flag Day as a state holiday, starting with Pennsylvania in 1937. A little over a decade later in 1949, an Act of Congress established National Flag Day. Despite popular belief, the act does not make Flag Day an official federal holiday and it is up to the President to officially declare a day of observance each year.
The same congressional act that established Flag Day also details a National Flag Week, held the same calendar week as Flag Day. The President historically issues a proclamation during Flag Week urging U.S. citizens to fly national flags for the duration of the week.