May 4, 2012 (San Diego) -- San Diegans Richard Lederer and Caroline McCullagh are the proud parents of a bouncing baby book, American Trivia: What We All Should Know About U.S. History, Culture & Geography (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2012). Over a span of a year, the co-authors will share with you their journey through American history. You can order inscribed and signed copies of the book by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's a Grand Old Flag
Our star-spangled banner is the most visible symbol of America. Walk through any downtown, and you will see the flag flying at the post office, the police station, the fire station, and any number of commercial buildings. Walk through any neighborhood, and you may see a flag flying in front of a home. People wear flag pins and flag-themed clothes. Cars sport flag decals. And the flag's stars and stripes and its colors—red, white, and blue—appear on many products in our stores.
The Second Continental Congress officially adopted the flag on June 14, 1777. The law read “that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The flag served as a maritime flag, used exclusively to identify American ships, until 1834, when the army adopted it as a battle flag. It didn’t become a symbol of the nation as a whole until much later.
The first specifications for the American flag, other than that the stars had to be five-pointed, were put forth by President William Howard Taft in 1912. President Dwight Eisenhower established the current flag specifications in Executive Order #10834 on August 21, 1959, the day Hawaii joined the union as our fiftieth state.
The 13 stars and stripes of the original flag symbolize the number of original states. The colors don’t officially symbolize anything; but the Great Seal of the United States, adopted on June 20, 1782, uses the same red, white, and blue. The red on the Great Seal signifies hardiness and valor; the white purity and innocence; and the blue vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
How the American flag was created is one of the classic stories of the founding of the United States. Some historians give credit to Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; but the story of Betsy Ross seems to have captured the imaginations of more Americans. And although there is scant historical proof of the specifics of the story, there is agreement about the course of Betsy’s life.
She was born Elizabeth Griscom, the eighth of 17 children, on January 1, 1752. She was a fourth-generation American, raised as a Quaker and apprenticed to an upholsterer. At 21, she eloped with John Ross, a fellow apprentice. Betsy and John opened an upholstery shop in Philadelphia, where they did general sewing for the home.
William Penn had established Philadelphia ninety-four years previously (in 1682) on the principles of freedom and religious tolerance. When Betsy and John lived there, it was a city of approximately 30,000 people, including English, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, African American freedmen and slaves, Germans, French Huguenots, Jews, Dutch, and Swedes. Philadelphia was then the second largest English speaking city in the world after London and the third most important commercial center in the British Empire, after London and Liverpool. The largest city in the Americas north of Mexico City, it was more populous than New York (approximately 5,000 residents) and Boston (approximately 7,000) combined.
These were times of political ferment. When the Revolutionary War flared up in 1775, John Ross joined a militia and was killed in January 1776, when a cache of gunpowder he was guarding on the waterfront exploded. After two years of marriage, Betsy was a childless war widow struggling to keep her upholstery business alive.
As the story goes, in May 1776, a committee of the Continental Congress composed of George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross, her late husband’s uncle, came to Betsy and asked her to make a flag following a sketch that Washington had created. Betsy suggested alterations to the design, in particular changing the six-pointed stars to five-pointed since she could create them with one cut of her scissors. The committee was impressed with Betsy's demonstration, and she began her task and created the first American flag in June 1776. She continued to make American flags for another 50 years as part of her business.
Married and widowed twice more, Betsy Ross bore seven daughters. She retired in 1827, turning the business over to family and nine years later died at the age of 84.