Our Flag

Occasionally, people run across an old document, or an antique that they want to donate to the Historical society. The office is full of material that the staff carefully sorts through and catalogs. Not all of it ends up on our doorstep though. Rather than trying to figure out how to donate the material, we often receive a phone call, or we are stopped on the street to bring the items of interest to the Ocean House.

A friend of mine from Hopkinton was sorting through old books and literature when he came across a publication by the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co that he wanted to donate. It was a small handbook titled “The Flag of the United States of America.” The publish date was 1960, which put a different perspective on its content. Well written and informative, it was clearly a product of post WWII. I wonder what a revised publication would look like today.

The handbook took the reader on a tour of our flag throughout history. During the period prior to the Revolution, each state had its own flag. Citing a few of them, Massachusetts’ flag was white, with a green pine tree in the center. The motto was “An Appeal to Heaven.” Rhode Island’s flag was white with a blue anchor. South Carolina’s flag is similar to what you see today: A crescent and a palmetto tree.

It wasn’t until the Revolutionary War that the colonies decided to unite under one banner. George Washington used the Pine Tree flag from Massachusetts at first, but a new a symbol of the United Colonies was needed. In 1776, the Great Union flag, which is the predecessor to the one we have today, had thirteen alternating stripes of red and white representing the thirteen original colonies. The only thing different was the addition of the Union Flag of Great Britain instead of the field of stars. Union Flag of Great Britain? I thought this was a revolution? It wasn’t until a year after the Declaration of Independence that stars would be added. On June 14, 1777 Congress 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.” Now you know why June 14th is Flag Day.

What about Betsy Ross, and Francis Scott Key? The handbook says the story of Betsy Ross making a flag for Washington has “no known basis in fact.” Another childhood story dashed, I’m afraid. As for Francis Scott Key, he did write the Star Spangled Banner while being held captive on an enemy ship overlooking Fort McHenry in 1814. An interesting note however: The flag proudly flying over the fort had 15 stars, and 15 stripes! An act of Congress after the inclusion of Vermont and Kentucky in 1791 and 1792 respectively, increased the stars and stripes by two. It was the intention of Congress to add a star and stripe for every new state that was admitted to the Union. They quickly saw the error of their ways and returned the stripes to 13. Imagine what the flag would look like today with 50 stars, and 50 stripes?

The National Flag Conference at Washington established the rules for the use and display of our flag in 1923. They were amended in 1942 by a joint resolution of the House and Senate, and approved by the President of the United States. The new code is broken down into eight sections. They outline when and where to display the flag, positioning with other flags, respect (and disrespect) of the flag, the national anthem, and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Well, I certainly learned more about our flag in the short 15 pages of the handbook. How it came into my friend’s possession, I am not sure, and neither is he. Perhaps it was a publication on behalf of John Hancock Mutual Life for attendees at Flag Day celebrations or possibly Memorial Day observances. At any rate, I would like to see the 2014 version.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
June 2014