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History of the flag of the United States

The design of the flag has been modified 26 times since it was first adopted in 1777. 

The 48-star version went unchanged for 47 years until the 49-star version became official on July 4, 1959. The 50-star flag was ordered by President Eisenhower on August 21, 1959. 

First flag

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, the United States had no official national flag. The Grand Union Flaghas historically been referred to as the "First National Flag"; although it has never had any official status, it was used early in the American Revolutionary War[58] by George Washington and formed the basis for the design of the first official U.S. flag. It closely resembles the British East India Company flag of the same era that was used from 1707, and an argument dating to Sir Charles Fawcett in 1937 holds that the Company flag indeed inspired the design.,in addition to Buckminster Fuller's mention of it in his book, Critical Path. However, the Company flag could have from 9 to 13 stripes, and was not allowed to be flown outside the Indian Ocean. Both flags could have been easily constructed by adding white stripes to a British Red Ensign, a common flag throughout Britain and its colonies.

Another theory holds that the red-and-white stripe—and later, stars-and-stripes—motif of the flag may have been based on the Washington family coat of arms, first used to identify the family in the twelfth century, when one of George Washington's ancestors took possession of Washington Old Hall, then in County Durham, north-east England, which consisted of a shield "argent, two bars gules, above, threemullets gules" (a white shield with two red bars below three red stars).

Another theory is based on the family coat of arms of Richard Amerike, a merchant whose surname is disputed to the naming of America. According to the American Flag Research Center in Massachusetts the heraldic origin of the American flag is not positively known; archives in the British Library confirm that the Stars and Stripes was the coat of arms of the Ap Merike family – and that they pre-date Washington's connection with the continent by 300 years.

The Flag Resolution of 1777

On June 14, 1777, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: "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." Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year. A false tradition holds that the new flag was first hoisted in June 1777 by the Continental Army at the Middlebrook encampment.

The 1777 resolution was most probably meant to define a naval ensign, rather than a national flag. It appears between other resolutions from the Marine Committee. On May 10, 1779, Secretary of the Board of War Richard Peters expressed concern "it is not yet settled what is the Standard of the United States."

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement, number of points, nor orientation for the stars. The pictured flag shows 13 outwardly-oriented five-pointed stars arranged in a circle, the so-called Betsy Ross flag. Although the Betsy Ross legend is controversial, the design is among the oldest of any U.S. flags. Popular designs at the time were varied and most were individually crafted rather than mass-produced. Other examples of 13-star arrangements can be found on the Francis Hopkinson flag, the Cowpens flag, and the Brandywine flag. Given the scant archaeological and written evidence, it is unknown which design was the most popular at that time.

Despite the 1777 resolution, a number of flags only loosely based on the prescribed design were used in the early years of American independence. One example may have been the Guilford Court House Flag, traditionally believed to have been carried by the American troops at the Battle of Guilford Court House in 1781.

The origin of the stars and stripes design is inadequately documented. The apocryphal story credits Betsy Ross for sewing the first flag from a pencil sketch handed to her by George Washington. No evidence for this exists; indeed, nearly a century had passed before Ross' grandson, William Canby, first publicly suggested it. Another woman, Rebecca Young, has also been credited as having made the first flag by later generations of her family. Rebecca Young's daughter was Mary Pickersgill, who made the Star Spangled Banner Flag.

It is likely that Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, designed the 1777 flag while he was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department, sometime between his appointment to that position in November 1776 and the time that the flag resolution was adopted in June 1777. This contradicts the Betsy Ross legend, which suggests that she sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag by request of the government in the Spring of 1776. Hopkinson was the only person to have made such a claim during his own lifetime, when he sent a bill to Congress for his work. He asked for a "Quarter Cask of the Public Wine" as payment initially. The payment was not made, however, because it was determined he had already received a salary as a member of Congress, and he was not the only person to have contributed to the design. No one else contested his claim at the time.

Later flag acts

In 1795, the number of stars and stripes was increased from 13 to 15 (to reflect the entry of Vermont and Kentucky as states of the union). For a time the flag was not changed when subsequent states were admitted, probably because it was thought that this would cause too much clutter. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner", now the national anthem

On April 4, 1818, a plan was passed by Congress at the suggestion of U.S. Naval Captain Samuel C. Reid in which the flag was changed to have 20 stars, with a new star to be added when each new state was admitted, but the number of stripes would be reduced to 13 so as to honor the original colonies. The act specified that new flag designs should become official on the first July 4 (Independence Day) following admission of one or more new states. The most recent change, from 49 stars to 50, occurred in 1960 when the present design was chosen, after Hawaii gained statehood in August 1959. Before that, the admission of Alaska in January 1959 prompted the debut of a short-lived 49-star flag.

As of July 4, 2007, the 50-star flag has become the longest rendition in use.

The "Flower Flag" arrives in Asia

The U.S. flag was brought to the city of Canton (Guǎngzhōu) in China in 1785 by the merchant shipEmpress of China, which carried a cargo of ginseng. There it gained the designation "Flower Flag". According to author and U.S. Naval officerGeorge H. Preble:

When the thirteen stripes and stars first appeared at Canton much curiosity was excited among the people. News was circulated that a strange ship had arrived from the farther end of the world, bearing a flag as beautiful as a flower. Everybody went to see the Fah-kay-cheun [花旗船], or flower-flag ship. This name at once established itself in the language, and America is now called Fah-kay-gawk [Chinese: 花旗國; pinyin: Huāqíguó; Cantonese Yale: Fākeìgwok], the flower-flag country, and an American, Fah-kay-gawk-yun [花旗國人], flower flag country man, — a more complimentary designation than that of red-headed barbarian, the name first bestowed on the Dutch.[73]

In the above quote, the Chinese words are written phonetically based on spoken Cantonese. The names given were common usage in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Other Asian nations have equivalent terms for America, for example Vietnamese: Hoa Kỳ ("Flower Flag"). Chinese nowadays refer to the United States as Chinese: 美国; pinyin: Měiguó.Měi is short for Měilìjiān (a Chinese pronunciation of "America") and "guó" means "country," so this name is unrelated to the flag.

The U.S. flag took its first trip around the world in 1787–90 on board the Columbia.[74] William Driver, who coined the phrase Old Glory, took the U.S. flag around the world in 1831–32. The flag attracted the notice of Japanese when an oversized version was carried to Yokohama by the steamer Great Republic as part of a round-the-world journey in 1871.

Historical progression of designs

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