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U.S. and world flags give us our identities

Updated on June 2, 2014

Someone from another planet might look at it waving in the breeze and consider it just a piece of cloth decorated with different colors and shapes, but people on Earth have a different view of their country’s flag.

In the United States, as in other countries, our flag is a patriotic symbol of our nation. Millions of military men have defended the U.S. flag and some have died in the process. Americans’ hearts swell with national pride when the Stars and Stripes goes by in a parade or is raised to the top a flagstaff.

Every country has a flag and it elicits a strong patriotic reaction from its citizens. Can you imagine the Olympics or the United Nations without the various countries displaying their flags?

Americans remember our flag and its history on June 14 – Flag Day. This year has an added significance, it's the 200 anniversary of the National Anthem. I’ll examine that later. But, first let’s explore how national flags were born.

As humans progressed we needed flags to identify our 'tribe'

Flags are like people. By that I mean each person is an individual who wears clothes and has a hairdo that’s unique to him/her. Most of us adorn ourselves with something (tattoos, jewelry and/or facial hair) that makes a statement. That says you are an individual. Even our gestures are our personal signatures. Our identity is closely linked with our self-image and our self-respect.

Four fascinating flag facts:

1. Betsy Ross may not have sewn the first U.S. flag

Most children are taught that Betsy Ross sewed together the first flag, but there is no historical evidence that she had a hand in producing the flag.

2. There are six flags on the moon

The first men on the moon (Apollo 11) planted an American flag on the lunar surface and the five missions that followed each contributed a little red, white and blue to the moonscape. They were last seen in 2012 lunar photos.

3. 'Old Glory' refers to specific flag

The nickname "Old Glory" refers to a flag owned by Captain William Driver, a Salem, Massachusetts shipmaster. When the captain saw his flag unfurl in the wind for the first time he declared, “Old Glory!” The nickname stuck. Driver’s flag is now in the Smithsonian in Washington.

4. The military no longer uses Chinese made U.S. flags

Many of the Stars and Stripes soldiers recently carried into battle and in parades were made in China. That stopped when a 2014 law required the Defense Department only purchase flags made in America.

“The sense of identity is not unique to humans. All animals protect themselves,” according to World HistoryforUsAll. To do this animals need to be able to differentiate whether that creature coming toward them is part of their species or a potential enemy.

While identity can be a matter of life and death for animals, it’s also important for people. Our need for identity is ingrained in our DNA. Since ancient times, people have decorated their bodies with tattoos, paint and scars as a sign of both individuality and to indicate they’re members of a tribe.

These markings “make powerful statements about who you are,” says WorldHistoryforUsAll. “Are you of high status or low? A man or a woman? A hunter or a potter? A factory worker or an executive?”

As tribes transitioned into living in villages and villages grew to city states, humans needed a portable object emblazoned with unique markings to profess their national identity – a flag. Historians trace this invention back to 1000 B.C. when Egyptians fashioned the first rudimentary flags out of wood, metal and even stone.

The Romans were the first to use textile flags. Soldiers fastened these square shaped flags to cross bars at the end of spears. This eventually transitioned to a flag fastened to a pole. The oldest preserved cloth flag is a crude Roman creation that was found in Egypt, according to Historians estimate it dates back to the third century A.D.

The US Army Signal Corps in action.
The US Army Signal Corps in action. | Source

The military's use of flags let them identify whether other troops were friend or foe. A nation's flag played an important role in war. During the confusion of battle a flag bearer stood near the military commander allowing troops to readily locate him. When their ranks were broken the soldiers rallied around the flag to regroup and await orders.

Soldiers also used flags to signal each other. The U.S. Signal Corps got its start during the Civil War as a means of communicating between units. The use of these flags was a key strategy in numerous battles since the 1860s.

Ships also used flags at sea to signal one another. Signal flags are still used today to communicate weather conditions to sailors. In the 1600s, ships began carrying their country's flags to designate their nationality. This practice later became a requirement under maritime law.

America's first official flag has a connection to 'Mother England'

18 century U.S. flags
18 century U.S. flags | Source

33,000 U.S. flags honor the fallen

The first flags in colonial America included images of beavers, pine trees and anchors – items the settlers found in the New World. When American patriots began to rebel from England they created a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag featuring a menacing rattlesnake.

Prior to the American Revolution the U.S. flag had an old fashioned British Union Jack in the upper left corner.

On June 14, 1777 the Continental Congress passed a law governing the design of America’s new flag. It was composed of 13 alternating red and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue field, representing a new constellation. The 13 stripes and stars signify the first 13 colonies, which became the country’s first states.

(Red is found on 75% of national flags. White appears on 70% of the world's flags and half the countries use blue on their flags.)

The red stripes are taken from the flag of America’s mother country. They are separated by white stripes showing that this country has separated from her. The stars, which appear on 25% of the world’s flags, signify spiritual enlightenment, sovereignty and wisdom.

New stars and stripes were added to the U.S. flag as America added new states. However, after the country grew to 15 states people realized that adding a stripe for each state would be unwieldy, so in 1818 Congress enacted a law limiting the flag to 13 stripes. The flag continued to be adorned with a star for each state.

Since 1818, revised flags have been issued on the 4th of July after a new state joined the Union. The current 50-star flag is the design with the longest duration – over 50-years. During America's early years (1818-1896), the Stars and Stripes went through 20 different versions. The life of many of these flags was only one or two years.

The United States flag is the third oldest flag in the world, behind Denmark (adopted in 1219) and Austria (1230). The Stars and Stripes is older than France's Tricolour (1794) and the Union Jack of Britain (1801).

In the public domain, according to tineye
In the public domain, according to tineye

How to buy a Capitol flown flag

Anyone can purchase a U.S. Flag that has flown over the Capitol building in Washington D.C. Go to your congress-person’s website and click on the "Constituent Services" or “Flag Request” link and follow the instructions.

Flags and handling charges range from $25 to $35 depending on size and fabric. You may request your flag be flown on a certain date such as a birthday or anniversary.

You'll need to make your request online or via the mail at least 4 weeks prior to the special fly date. (More time may be required to handle mail requests.) Expect your flag to arrive in the mail in 3 to 4 weeks.

Flag Day: An unusual holiday

Each June 14 there are no fireworks, most people don't get time off from work and hardly any celebrate Flag Day. It's a day set aside to mark the 1777 birthday of the Stars and Stripes, but only Pennsylvania and New York observe it as a state holiday. However, most Americans do fly the flag on its day.

Several communities hold parades on Flag Day, including Three Oaks, Michigan, Fairfield, Washington, Quincy, Massachusetts and Troy, New York.

There's some dispute among these communities on which one stages the largest and longest running events.

Many American Legion and Boy Scout groups observed Flag Day by providing a means for the proper disposal of a flag. According to flag etiquette old flags should not be tossed in the garbage, but should be burned. Synthetic fibers in today's flags are toxic when burned so the Scouts and the Legion will handle the dignified disposal of old flags.

The National Anthem celebrates one of America's early triumphs

In the fall of 1814, Washington, D.C lay smoldering after British troops burned the White House, the Capitol and many of the buildings in the young country's capital. Nearby, the British fleet docked at Baltimore Harbor. Under a white flag of truce, lawyer Francis Scott Key visited one of the Royal Navy ships in order to negotiate the release of a prisoner. Key was detained on ship so he couldn't warn the Americans, while the enemy fleet in Chesapeake Bay bombarded nearby Fort McHenry.

Shelling continued throughout the night. At dawn on Sept. 14th, Key saw the huge American flag at the fort was still waving, signifying that the Americans had not been defeated by the world's most powerful navy. The sight inspired him to write a poem that became known as the "Star Spangled Banner." His poem was eventually set to stirring music by English composer John Stafford Smith.

For decades, Americans treated the song as its de facto National Anthem. It took Congress 116-years before it proclaimed Key's song the National Anthem on March 3, 1931.

America celebrates the 200th anniversary of Key's patrotic poem


To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem, the Smithsonian Institution will display the original manuscript of Key's poem, along with the tattered 30' by 42' flag that inspired it. The exhibition opens on June 14 – Flag Day.

The Smithsonian also is inviting thousands to participate in a Guinness record-breaking feat on Flag Day. A massive number of folks will be singing the "Star Spangled Banner."

Later in the year, a seven-day celebration, featuring historic tall ships and the Navy's Blue Angels, will be held in and around Baltimore Harbor. The festivities will run from Sept. 10 to 16, with major events on the Sept. 14 anniversary. Among the items planned throughout the week are living history demonstrations at Fort McHenry, an air show, tours of the ships and a kids zone. Sept. 14 will conclude with a patriotic concert and a fireworks display. Click here for details. –TDowling

© 2014 Thomas Dowling


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