The occasion of America’s Independence Day on July 4th offers a good time to reflect on how the Star-Spangled Banner became the official flag of the nation. It all started back in 1777. A ragtag army of American colonists was engaged in a fierce battle for independence from Great Britain. Designing an aesthetically pleasing flag to represent themselves was the last thing on their mind. Outnumbered, outspent and outmaneuvered, the Continental Congress had more urgent matters to deal with.
But an emissary from a pro-colonist Native American tribe forced Congress to act by requesting a banner of sorts to display so that scouts would not come under “friendly fire” while on missions for the Continental Army. To prove they were willing to “pay” for such a flag, the emissary included three strings of wampum. Congress hastily put a flag design on its agenda, and 11 days later: “RESOLVED: that the flag of the United states be 13 stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be 13 stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.” This resolution was one of many passed that day. The committee obviously didn’t give the matter much thought, but “borrowed” liberally from several sources, including the Sons of Liberty red-and-white “stripes of rebellion” banner and the 13-star blue canton of the New Hampshire Green Mountain Boys and Rhode Island Continental Regiment.
Produced for the Nevada Museum of Art by Kit Hinrichs while a partner at Pentagram
Since nothing was spelled out, flagmakers interpreted the flag resolution any way they wanted. The stars varied in size, arrangement and points. Sometimes the stars were placed in a circle, staggered in rows, displayed with a big star in the middle surrounded by smaller ones, or just scattered on the blue field as if sewn in place wherever they landed. The red and white stripes also varied in width.
The situation didn’t improve even after the American Revolution. When Kentucky and Vermont won statehood in 1794, Congress agreed to acknowledge them by expanding the number of stars and stripes to 15. Supposedly each time a State entered the Union, it would get its own star and stripe too, but with so many territories slated to enter the Union, Congress decided that the stripes would soon become pinstripes, and decreed that the flag would revert back to 13 horizontal stripes symbolizing the original 13 colonies, with each state represented by a single star.
Even limiting changes to the stars proved problematic. Since 28 states entered the Union between 1818 and 1912, practical flagmakers left unsightly gaps in the blue canton so they could easily stitch another star into place. During the Civil War, the opposite happened, with angry Unionist tearing stars off to protest Confederate secessionist states.
The lack of graphic standards for the American flag proved both negative and positive. Free to interpret the nation’s banner any way they wanted, average Americans creatively applied stars and stripes to everything from pincushions to cans of pickled pork. Sometimes the lack of design sensibility bordered on desecration of the flag. By 1912, when the nation had 48 states, Congress decided that enough was enough. It adopted the graphic guidelines that are in place today. When we consider the history of the American flag, it is a miracle that the Stars & Stripes has become so iconic and recognizable when it ignored every rule of how to build a strong graphic identity.