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Encyclopedia > Stars and Stripes
Flag ratio: 10:19; nicknames: Stars and Stripes, Old Glory

The flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white; there is a blue rectangle in the upper hoist-side corner bearing 50 small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternating with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states and the 13 stripes represent the 13 original colonies.

The United States flag is commonly called the Stars and Stripes and less commonly Old Glory. The name Old Glory was coined in the 1830s, and was of particularly common use during the era of 48-star version (1912 to 1959).



The flag has gone through 26 changes since the new union of 13 states first adopted it. The 48-star version holds the record, 47 years, for the longest time the flag has gone unchanged. The current 50-star version will tie the record if it is still in use on July 4, 2007.

13-star "Betsy Ross" flag

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776, the most commonly flown flag was the Grand Union Flag. This flag was initially flown by George Washington and is recorded as being first raised by Washington's troops at Prospect Hill on New Year's Day in 1776. This flag formed the basis of the Stars and Stripes, consisting of 13 red and white stripes with the British Union Jack in the canton.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation." Describing the new flag, the Congress wrote, "White signifies Purity and Innocence; Red, Hardiness and Valor; Blue signifies Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice." Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year.

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement for the stars. Initially, a variety of designs were used, including a circular arrangement (pictured at right), but gradually a design featuring horizontal rows of stars emerged as the standard. As further states entered the union, extra stars and stripes were added until this proved to cause too much clutter. It was ultimately decided that there would be a star for each state, but the number of stripes would remain at thirteen to honor the original colonies. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner", now the national anthem.

48-star classic "Old Glory" flag, used 1912-1959

When the flag design changes, the change always takes place on July 4 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a consequence of the Flag Act of April 4, 1818. July 4, Independence Day in the United States, commemorates the founding of the nation. The most recent change, from forty-nine stars to fifty, occurred in 1960, after Hawaii gained statehood. Before that, the admission of Alaska the year before prompted the debut of a short-lived 49-star flag.

The flag flew in battle for the first time at Cooch's Bridge in Maryland on September 3, 1777 during the American Revolutionary War.

The origin of the U.S. flag design is uncertain. A popular story credits Betsy Ross for sewing the first flag from a pencil sketch of George Washington who personally commissioned her for the job. However, no evidence for this theory exists beyond Ross's own records. The British historian Sir Charles Fawcett has suggested that the design of the flag may have been derived from the flag and jack of the British East India Company. Comparisons (http://www.kimber.org/flag/index.htm) between the 2 flags support Fawcett's suggestion. Another popular theory is that the flag was designed by Francis Hopkinson. He reportedly originally wanted the stars arranged in four bands, one vertical, one horizontal, and two diagonal. By the same reports, this arrangement was rejected due to similarity to the British flag.


While institutions often display the flag year-round, most homeowners reserve flag display for civic holidays like Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, President's Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July. On Memorial Day it is common to place small flags by war memorials and next to the graves of U.S. war dead.


To some U.S. citizens, their flag symbolizes many things. They have seen it as representing all of the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Perhaps most of all they see it as a symbol of individual and personal liberty like those put forth in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The approved method of destroying old and tattered flags consists of burning them in a simple ceremony. The flag is cut into three pieces: first a horizontal cut is made between the seventh and eighth stripes, then a vertical cut separating the star field from the seven shorter stripes. Then the three pieces are typically placed on a pyre as 'Taps' is played. Burning the flag has also been used as a deliberate act of disrespect, at times to protest actions by the United States government, or sometimes in displays of Anti-Americanism. Some groups concerned by these actions have proposed a Flag Burning Amendment that would outlaw burning the flag in disrespect or protest.

Influences on other flags

The design and colors of the American "Stars and Stripes" have been the basis for a number of other flags, both past and present, some of which appear below:


Note especially the echoes in the colors and designs of several of the flags of the Confederate States of America. Note also that the flags of Chile, Greece, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) were influenced by the United States flag but aren't shown above.

Flag etiquette

There are certain guidelines for the use and display of the United States flag as outlined in the United States Flag Code of the federal government.

Standards of respect

  • The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing.
  • The flag is flown upside down only as a distress signal.
  • The flag should not be used as a drapery, or for covering a speakers desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
  • The flag should never be drawn back or bunched up in any way.
  • The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
  • The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard.
  • The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.
  • The flag should never have placed on it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind.
  • The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
  • The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle, railroad train or boat.
  • When the flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object; it should be received by waiting hands and arms. To store the flag it should be folded neatly and ceremoniously.
  • The flag should be cleaned and mended when necessary.
  • When a flag is so worn it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. (Note: Most American Legion Posts regularly conduct a dignified flag burning ceremony, often on Flag Day, June 14.)

Contrary to a commonly believed urban legend, the flag code does not state that a flag which touches the ground should be burned. Instead, the flag should be moved so it is not touching the ground.

Displaying the flag outdoors

  • When the flag is displayed from a staff projecting from a window, balcony, or a building, the union should be at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half staff. When it is displayed from the same flagpole with another flag, the flag of the United States must always be at the top except that the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for Navy personnel when conducted by a Naval chaplain on a ship at sea.
  • When the flag is displayed over a street, it should be hung vertically, with the union to the north or east. If the flag is suspended over a sidewalk, the flag's union should be farthest from the building.
  • When flown with flags of states, communities or societies on separate flag poles which are of the same height and in a straight line, the flag of the United States is always placed in the position of honor—to its own right. The other flags may be smaller but none may be larger.
  • No other flag ever should be placed above it. The flag of the United States is always the first flag raised and the last to be lowered.
  • When flown with the national banner of other countries, each flag must be displayed from a separate pole of the same height. Each flag should be the same size. They should be raised and lowered simultaneously. The flag of one nation may not be displayed above that of another nation.
  • The flag should be raised briskly and lowered slowly and ceremoniously.
  • Ordinarily it should be displayed only between sunrise and sunset. (By Presidential proclamation and law, the flag is displayed continuously at certain honored locations like the United States Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington and Lexington Green.)
  • It should be illuminated if displayed at night.
  • The flag of the United States of America is saluted as it is hoisted and lowered. The salute is held until the flag is unsnapped from the halyard or through the last note of music, whichever is the longest.

Displaying the flag indoors

  • When on display, the flag is accorded the place of honor, always positioned to its own right. Place it to the right of the speaker or staging area or sanctuary. Other flags should be to the left.
  • The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of states, localities, or societies are grouped for display.
  • When one flag is used with the flag of the United States of America and the staffs are crossed, the flag of the United States is placed on its own right with its staff in front of the other flag.
  • When displaying the flag against a wall, vertically or horizontally, the flag's union (stars) should be at the top, to the flag's own right, and to the observer's left.

Parading and saluting the flag

  • When carried in a procession, the flag should be to the right of the marchers.
  • When other flags are carried, the flag of the United States may be centered in front of the others or carried to their right. When the flag passes in a procession, or when it is hoisted or lowered, all should face the flag and salute.
  • To salute, all persons come to attention.
    • Those in uniform give the appropriate formal salute.
    • Citizens not in uniform salute by placing their right hand over the heart and men with head cover should remove it and hold it to left shoulder, hand over the heart.
    • Members of organizations in formation salute upon command of the person in charge.

Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem

  • The Pledge of Allegiance should be rendered by standing at attention, facing the flag, and saluting.
  • When the national anthem is played or sung, citizens should stand at attention and salute at the first note and hold the salute through the last note. The salute is directed to the flag, if displayed, otherwise to the music.

The flag, in mourning

  • To place the flag at half-staff (or half-mast, on ships), hoist it to the peak for an instant and lower it to a position half way between the top and bottom of the staff.
  • The flag is to be raised again to the peak for a moment before it is lowered.
  • On Memorial Day, the flag is displayed at half-staff until noon and at full staff from noon to sunset.
  • The flag is to be flown at half-staff in mourning for designated, principal government leaders and upon presidential or gubernatorial order.
  • The U.S. flag is otherwise flown at half-staff (or half-mast, on ships) when directed by the President of the United States or a state governor.
  • When used to cover a casket, the flag should be placed with the union at the head and over the left shoulder. It should not be lowered into the grave.

Folding the flag

Folding the US Flag
Folding the US Flag

Flags, when not in use, should be folded into a triangle shape. The final triangle shape result is said to invoke the image of the three-point hats popular during the American Revolutionary War. Former American territories, e.g. the Philippines, also use this method to fold their flags.

  • To properly fold the flag, begin by holding it waist-high with another person so that its surface is parallel to the ground.
  • Fold the lower half of the stripe section lengthwise over the field of stars, holding the bottom and top edges securely.
  • Fold the flag again lengthwise with the blue field on the outside.
  • Make a triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to meet the open top edge of the flag.
  • Turn the outer end point inward, parallel to the open edge, to form a second triangle.
  • The triangular folding is continued until the entire length of the flag is folded in this manner.
  • When the flag is completely folded, only a triangular blue field of stars should be visible.

Places where the American flag is displayed continuously

According to Presidential proclamation and in some cases, U.S. law, the American flag is displayed continuously at the following locations:

  • Mount Slover limestone quarry, in Colton, California (Act of Congress). First raised July 4, 1917.[1] (http://www.calportland.com/colton/Colton.htm)
  • Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Baltimore, Maryland (Presidential Proclamation No. 2795, July 2, 1948).
  • Flag House Square, Albemarle and Pratt Streets, Baltimore, Maryland (Public Law 83-319, approved March 26, 1954).
  • United States Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima), Arlington, Virginia (Presidential Proclamation No. 3418, June 12, 1961).
  • Lexington, Massachusetts Town Green (Public Law 89-335, approved November 8, 1965).
  • The White House, Washington, DC (Presidential Proclamation No.4000, September 4, 1970).
  • Fifty U.S. Flags are displayed continuously at the Washington Monument, Washington, DC. (Presidential Proclamation No. 4064, July 6, 1971, effective July 4, 1971).
  • United States Customs Service Ports of Entry that are continuously open (Presidential Proclamation No.4131, May 5, 1972).
  • Grounds of the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge State Park, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (Public Law 94-53, approved July 4, 1975).
  • In addition, the American flag is presumed to be in continual display on the surface of the Earth's Moon, having been placed there by the astronauts of Apollo 11. It is assumed however that the flag was knocked down by the force of Apollo 11's return to lunar orbit.

Historical star patterns

Stars can be considered to occupy approximately half of a rectangle, so the number of stars is a x b / 2 plus or minus a small correction (as needed). On the current 50-star flag, the blue rectangle takes up 40% of the total width, and a height of 7 of the 13 stripes.

50 = 9x11/2 + .5 (1960 - present)

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

49 = 7x14/2 (1959 - 1960)

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

48 = 6x8 (1912 - 1959)

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

46 = 6x15/2 + 1 (1908 - 1912)

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

45 = 6x15/2 (1896 - 1908)

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

44 = 6x15/2 - 1 (1891 - 1896)

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

43 = 6x15/2 - 2 (1890 - 1891)

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
  • symmetry with respect to horizontal axis: 50, 49, 48, 46, 44
  • symmetry with respect to vertical axis: 50, 48, 46, 45, 44
  • both, hence also point symmetry: 50, 48, 46, 44
  • no symmetry: 43
  • chessboard pattern: 50, 49, 45 (in these cases the small correction mentioned above is .5 if a and b are odd, and zero otherwise)
  • rectangle of stars: 48

The United States Government's Institute of Heraldry already has official plans for future flags, most notably the U.S. 51 star flag. This is most commonly used in support of the Puerto Rico statehood movement.

See also

External links

  • United States (http://www.fotw.net/flags/us.html) at Flags of the World
  • U.S. Flag Etiquette (http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/flagetiq.html)
  • The United States Flag Page (http://www.usflag.org/)
  • Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Facts About the United States Flag (http://www.si.edu/resource/faq/nmah/flag.htm)
  • The Flag Code--U.S. Code Home: Title 4, Flag and Seal, Seat of Government, and the States--Chapter 1, The Flag (http://www.access.gpo.gov/uscode/title4/chapter1_.html)
National flags
List of national flags | Gallery of national flags
List of national coats of arms

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