More than 100 years after the Second Continental Congress adopted our nation’s flag on June 14, 1777, a young schoolteacher in Waubeka, Wisconsin, assigned his students an essay on what the flag meant to them. It was the first Flag Day.
We celebrate Flag Day this week, as communities stage parades and schools hold ceremonies honoring this important symbol of our nation. It’s an ideal time to share a little American history with our children – or to ask them what they have learned in school about the flag.
How did our flag come to be? We often associate the Stars and Stripes with the story of a young Philadelphia seamstress named Betsy Ross.
When the conflict with Britain first began, the colonies used the British flag (known as the Union Jack) in their flag’s design. But as the patriots looked to distance themselves from their British oppressors – and to reduce confusion caused by the similarity of the flags – the colonists decided to create their own national symbol.
According to the legend, a secret Congressional committee – comprised of George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross – approached the widowed seamstress in her sewing shop in 1776 to ask her to create a flag for the new nation. Washington showed her a sketch of the proposed flag, a design with 13 red and white stripes and 13 stars, representing the 13 colonies and soon-to-be states.
The story goes that Ross suggested one revision to Washington’s design: Rather than feature a six-side star, Ross proposed five points. The three men agreed, and Ross set to work crafting the original American flag.
There are historians who disagree about Betsy’s role in creating the American flag. Some say the person who deserves more credit is Francis Hopkinson.
An influential politician of the day, Hopkinson was also a lawyer, musician and poet – as well as an artistic designer who contributed to the design of many important U.S. symbols, including the seal of New Jersey, the United States Treasury seal and the Great Seal of the United States.
He wrote several letters in 1789 asking to be compensated for the design of the nation’s new flag. His request was ultimately rejected by the Treasury Board, which said Hopkinson was “not the only person” who contributed to the flag’s design. The response acknowledges that he had some hand in the design of the flag.
A schoolteacher named Bernard John Cigrand gets credit as the “founder” of Flag Day. In 1885, Cigrand, then 19, taught in a one-room school in Waubeka, Wisconsin. Cigrand placed a 10-inch, 38-star flag in his inkwell and instructed his students to write an essay on what the flag meant to them.
According to The National Flag Day Foundation, “From that day on, Bernard J. Cigrand dedicated himself to inspire not only his students but also all Americans in the real meaning and majesty of our flag.”
Thirty-one years later, according to the foundation, “The crowning achievement of [Cigrand’s] life came at age fifty when President Wilson, on May 30, 1916, issued a proclamation calling for a nationwide observance of Flag Day. Then in 1949, President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating the 14th day of June every year as National Flag Day. On June 14th, 2004, the 108th U.S. Congress voted unanimously on H.R. 662 that Flag Day originated in Ozaukee County, Waubeka, Wisconsin.”
Here are some things to share with children to mark this day in history:
On June 14, 1923, representatives of more 68 organizations established the United States Flag Code. The code became law in 1942. The code includes guidelines that relate to respecting this symbol of our country, including:
- The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
- The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
- No other flag should be placed above the flag of the United States or, if on the same level, to its right.
Learn more about Flag Guidelines at Almanac.com
Betsy Ross allegedly convinced the Congressional committee that visited her to opt for a five-point star. Learn how to create one in the Betsy Ross challenge
Learn how the flag is folded at the end of the day by members of the Army and Navy. From USFlag.com: “As an Army and Navy custom, the flag is lowered daily at the last note of retreat. Special care should be taken that no part of the flag touches the ground. The Flag is then carefully folded into the shape of a tri-cornered hat, emblematic of the hats worn by colonial soldiers during the war for Independence. In the folding, the red and white stripes are finally wrapped into the blue, as the light of day vanishes into the darkness of night.”
Learn more about the evolution of the flag.
FlagDay.com has more information on the history of the flag and Flag Day.