The fascinating history of the American flag, and its evolution since 1777

The birth of Old Glory from painting by Moran

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There’s so much story packed into the history of the American flag and how its design adapted over nearly 200 years — in step with the evolution of our union.

As you celebrate our patriotic holidays, we hope you enjoy this comprehensive history of the American flag — a retrospective that was originally published in 1976, the year the USA celebrated the Bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The history of the American flag (story from 1976)

Old Glory undergoes facelift 26 times through our nation’s history

What’s the story behind the history of the American flag? The banner, with its thirteen red and white stripes and a field of blue and fifty white stars has changed in appearance 26 times after the first flag was officially adopted June 14, 1777.

When Hawaii was admitted as a state July 4, 1960, it became the “stars and stripes” Americans revere today as this country celebrates its Bicentennial.

The resolution offered by the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia and adopted June 14, 1777, read: “Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Congress gave no instructions how the stars should be arranged, and no statement was made who designed the flag. The resolution was not even published until Sept. 2, 1777, 11 weeks after its passage.

History of the American flag (4)
The history of the American flag: The Flag of Twenty Stars and Thirteen Stripes, adopted July 4, 1818

Looking back at the history of the American flag, many legends have sprung up, one of the most prevalent being that Betsy Ross designed the flag. This was first publicized by her nephew in 1870, but Dr. Milo Milton Quaife, according to the World Almanac, wrote: “No record has ever been found of the creation by Mrs. Ross of the first Stars and Stripes.”

The New Century Cyclopedia of Names (1954) says: “There is documentary evidence that she was paid in May, 1777, for ‘making ships colours, etc.’ but no direct documentary evidence has been found to like her with the flag adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, as the national emblem, and most historians now doubt if she made it.”

All-American Jell-O flag & patriotic parfaits (1999)

According to the World Almanac, no one knows for sure who designed it, but Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and designer of seals for the State Department, the Treasury Board and of a naval flag, declared he also had designed the flag and in 1781 asked Congress to reimburse him for his services. Congress did not do so, however, Dumas Malone of Columbia University stated, “This talented man… designed the American flag.”

Betsy Ross - dear mother of our flag - Vintage sheet music
American flag history: Vintage sheet music for a song about Betsy Ross

American flag history & facts: How many stars and stripes

What’s the history of the American flag? The flag of 1777 was used until 1795. When Vermont and Kentucky were admitted to the Union, Congress passed and President Washington signed an act that after May 1, 1795, the flag should have 15 stripes, alternately red and white, and 15 white stars on the blue field.

As the new states were admitted to the Union, it became evident that the flag would become burdensome with added stripes.

Congress ordered that after July 4, 1818, the flag should have 13 stripes, symbolic of the 13 original States; that there be 20 stars, and whenever a new state was admitted, a new star would be added on the July 4 following admission.

There is no law designating the permanent arrangement of the stars. Since 1912, however, when a new state has been admitted, the new design has been announced by executive order.

No star is specifically identified with any state.

The 50 white stars on the field of blue are now arranged in alternate rows of six stars and five stars, staggered, with five rows of six stars, and four rows of five stars.

What is the history of the American flag nicknames?

It is obvious that the expression “stars and stripes” comes from the flag’s appearance, but another popular name it has is “Old Glory.” It was said to have been given this name by William Driver, a sea captain of Salem, Mass. According to one legend, he said, “I name thee Old Glory” when he raised the flag on his brig, the Charles Doggett in 1824.

His daughter, who presented the flag to the Smithsonian Institution, said he named it at his 21st birthday celebration March 17, 1824, when his mother presented the homemade flag to him.

In this Bicentennial year, it is interesting to review American flag history and how the U.S. flag evolved into the “Stars and Stripes” or “Old Glory” Americans salute and pledge their allegiance to in a gesture of appreciation for all that is theirs to enjoy in this land today.

History of the American flag (2)
History of the American flag: The Betsy Ross Flag of Thirteen Stars and Thirteen stripes, adopted June 14, 1777. The arrangement of the stars was changed to three horizontal lines of four, five and four stars.

The history of the American flag: How it has changed, year by year

Here’s a timeline of the history of the American flag

The first flag which was officially adopted June 14, 1777, had 13 stars representing the original thirteen founding states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

President George Washington served under the first flag and it was used in the War of Independence, 1775-1783.

The second flag, with 15 stars, became official May 1, 1795, after Vermont was admitted to the union March 4, 1791, and Kentucky, June 1, 1792. Presidents serving under this flag were George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. It was used in the War with Barbary pirates (Tripoli war, 1801-1805); and the War of 1812 (1812-1815).

Star Spangled Banner - American flag history
American flag history: The Star-Spangled Banner

The third flag became official April 13, 1818, with 20 stars, the five additional for the following States given with the dates of their admission: Tennessee, June 1, 1796; Ohio, Feb. 19, 1803; Louisiana, April 30, 1812; Indiana, Dec. 11, 1816; Mississippi, Dec. 10, 1817. James Monroe was president during this interval, and the flag was not carried into a war.

History of the American flag (3)
History of the American Flag: The Flag of Fifteen Stars and Fifteen Stripes adopted May 1795.

The fourth flag, with 21 stars, became official July 4, 1819, following the admission of Illinois Dec. 3, 1818, into the Union while James Monroe was president, and it, too, did not go to war.

The fifth flag, with 23 stars, followed on July 4, 1820, when Alabama was admitted Dec. 14, 1819, and Maine on March 15, 1820. James Monroe was president, and once again the flag did not go to war.

The sixth flag had 24 stars, having been adopted July 4, 1822, after Missouri was admitted as a state Aug. 10, 1821. James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson served as presidents under it. The U.S. was at peace under it.

The seventh flag was adopted July 4, 1836, and had 25 stars after Arkansas was admitted to the Union June 15, 1836. Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren served as presidents under it. The U.S. was not at war during its tenure.

The eighth flag became official July 4, 1837, when Michigan joined the union Jan. 26, 1837, making 26 stars. Serving as presidents under it were Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and James K. Polk. Peace in the U.S. The U.S. was at peace under it.

The 9th flag, adopted July 4, 1845, marked the entry of Florida as a state March 3, 1845, and had 27 stars. James K. Polk was president, and the Mexican War (1846-48) found it flying in the battlefields.

The 10th flag is the one all Texans take special pride in because it became official July 4, 1846, after Texas had been admitted as a state Dec. 29, 1845, adding the 28th star. James K. Polk was also president, and the country was still engaged in the Mexican War.

The 11th flag, with 29 stars became official July 4, 1847, after Iowa was admitted Dec. 28, 1846. James K. Polk was still president and the country was still involved in the Mexican War.

The 12th flag, adopted July 4, 1848, had 30 stars and found the country at peace under presidents James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. The 30th star represented Wisconsin which became a state May 29, 1848.

The 13th flag marked the entrance of California into the Union Sept. 9, 1850, as the 3ist state and was officially adopted July 4, 1851. Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were presidents and the country was at peace.

The 14th flag, with 32 stars, became official July 4, 1858, after Minnesota joined the union May 11, 1858. James Buchanan was president, and it was carried into no war.

History of the American flag during and after the Civil War

The 15th flag, however, was involved in the Civil War (1861-1865). It was officially adopted July 4, 1859, after Oregon became a state Feb. 14, 1859. James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln served the Presidency under it. It had 33 stars.

The 16th flag, with its 34 stars became official July 4, 1861, while Abraham Lincoln was president and the Civil War was still in progress. The 34th state to enter the Union was Kansas, on January 29, 1861.

The flag with 34 stars - American history
History of the American flag: The Flag with 34 Stars sheet music

The 17th flag came into being during the Civil War with its adoption July 4, 1863, following West Virginia’s becoming a state June 20, 1863. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson were Presidents under it and it had 35 stars.

The 18th flag, 36 stars gleaming, became official July 4, 1865, after Nevada became a state Oct. 31, 1864. It flew over the USA in peacetime, and Andrew Johnson filled the Presidency under it.

American flag at Fort Sumpter - US history
History of the American flag: Raising of the Flag over Fort Sumter, February 18, 1865, on a temporary staff formed of an oar and boat hook…

The 19th, officially adopted July 4, 1867, following the admission of Nebraska March 1, 1867, flew during’ the Presidencies of Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. It also flew in peacetime and had 37 stars.

The 20th flag came 10 years later with 38 stars on July 4, 1877, after Colorado became a state Aug. 1, 1876. Presidents serving under it were Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Alan Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison while the US was at peace.

The 21st flag had 43 stars following its adoption July 4, 1890. New states added were North Dakota and South Dakota, both on Nov. 2, 1889; Montana, Nov. 8, 1889; Washington, Nov. 11, 1889; and Idaho, July 3, 1890. Benjamin Harrison was president under it, and the country was at peace.

The 22nd flag, with 44 stars came into existence July 4, 1891, after Wyoming _ entered statehood July 10, 1890. Ben- jamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland were presidents, and it flew in no U.S. war. This flag flew over Fredericksburg during its 50th anniversary celebration May 8, 1896.

The 23rd flag which had 45 stars, flew over the Spanish- American War (1898). It was adopted July 4, 1896, after Utah joined the Union Jan. 4, 1896. Presidents were Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

The 24th flag had 46 stars, with the newest representing Oklahoma which became a state Nov. 16, 1907. It was adopted officially July 4, 1908. Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were presidents under it.

History of the American flag (5)
History of the American flag: An ode to the American flag by Oliver Wendell Holmes

The 25th US flag, with its 48 stars, flew over the U.S. for the longest time of any previous flag. It became official July 4, 1912, after New Mexico came into statehood Jan. 6, 1912, and Arizona on Feb. 14, 1912 — the last of the contiguous states. Presidents serving under it were William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. It went into three wars, World War I (1917-18); World War II (1941-45); Korean War (1950- 53).

History of the American flag (1)
History of the American flag

The 26th 49-star flag came into existence July 4, 1959, after Alaska became a state Jan. 3, 1959, during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, and it flew in peacetime.

The 27th, and present-day 50-star flag, became official July 4, 1960, after Hawaii was admitted into statehood on Aug. 21, 1959. It was officially raised for the first time July 4, 1960, at 12:01 a.m. at Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, Maryland. It was here that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1814 (see the lyrics below) and it is one of the few places it flies 24 hours a day.

Presidents who have served under the American flag with 50 stars have been Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. This flag flew over U.S. troops during the Vietnam War (1961- 73), hopefully the last war-time encounter this “grand old flag” will have.

It matters not, in 1976, whether you refer to it as “The Star Spangled Banner,” “The Stars and Stripes,” “Old Glory,” or “the grand old flag,” but what matters is that in this Bicentennial year, Americans proudly display and fly the flag and, most of all, pay it the respect that it is due as the symbol and emblem of freedom and sacrifice that brought America to this point in its history.

The American flag - history
History of the American flag: The American Flag: A New National Lyric — vintage sheet music
Vintage postcards for the 4th of July

The history of the American flag: The Stars and Stripes, 1777, 1795, 1818, 1847, 1878

The stars and stripes 1777 1878 - US flags
History of the American Flag: The Stars and Stripes, 1777-1878

American flag history: The Star Spangled Banner – Lyrics

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

The Star-Spangled Banner - Vintage sheet music
History of the American flag: The Star Spangled Banner vintage sheet music

American flag history: The evolution of the American flag (book)

The evolution of the American flag
History of the American flag: The Evolution of the American Flag book


History of the American flag (7)
History of the American flag: The Flag of Fifteen Stars and Fifteen Stripes; The Flag of Twenty Stars and Thirteen Stripes

Antique painting Our heaven-born banner 1861
History of the American flag: Our heaven-born banner painting (1861)

Antique painting: Our heaven-born banner

Above is a pro-Union patriotic print, evidently based on Frederic Edwin Church’s small oil painting “Our Banner in the Sky” (or on a chromolithograph reproducing that painting) published in New York by Goupil & Co. in the summer of 1861. 

Church’s painting was inspired by the highly publicized Confederate insult to the American flag at Fort Sumter in April 1861, and by a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher published shortly thereafter. This print was deposited for copyright with a companion piece, “Fate of the Rebel Flag” (below), on September 6 1861.

“Our Heaven Born Banner” shows a lone Zouave sentry watching from a promontory as the dawn breaks in the distance. His rifle and bayonet form the staff of an American flag whose design and colors are formed by the sky’s light. Below, in the distance, is a fort — probably Sumter.

The print is accompanied by eight lines of verse:

When Freedom from her mountain height
Unfurled her standard to the air,
She tore the azure robe of night
And set the stars of glory there.
She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
The milky baldrick of the skies,
And striped its pure celestial white
With streakings of the morning light.

Unlike its companion piece, “Our Heaven Born Banner” is printed using brown instead of black ink for the primary tone.

Antique painting: Fate of the Rebel flag

This is the second of a pair of patriotic prints after paintings by William Bauly. “Fate of the Rebel Flag” resembles its companion piece, “Our Heaven Born Banner” (above), in format, coloring, and its militantly Unionist theme.

In a spectacular nocturnal scene, a large warship sinks and burns on a calm sea littered with debris. The flames take on the configuration of the red, white, and blue flag of the Confederacy, the blue field with seven stars being formed by the night sky showing through the flames. Lightning strikes the flag from the upper left. 

Antique painting Fate of the Rebel flag

Both painted by William Bauly; Lithographs by Sarony, Major & Knapp, 449 Broadway, New York; Published by William Schaus, 749 Broadway, New York. Courtesy LOC.

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