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Celebrate the Stars and Stripes

Martha Stewart Living, July 2006

The American flag is a celebrated sight -- one that is more common in July than at any other time of year. What better time, then, for a look back at how it came to be? The Stars and Stripes has always elicited deeply personal responses. And in reflecting on examples from different periods in our nation's history, it becomes apparent how these responses have shaped the flag's evolution.

There is no definitive history of our banner's design. Despite the charm and persistence of the tale of Betsy Ross, her story is thought to be folklore. But there are milestones: On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the Flag Act, creating our first official flag. It specified the inclusion of thirteen red and white stripes, representing the original colonies, and thirteen white stars on a blue field, symbolizing a "new constellation": our nation. But the Continental Congress specified no particular arrangement. In 1818, it was agreed that the number of stars would change as states were added to the union but that the stripes would remain at thirteen. The end of the nineteenth century saw certain states making rules about the flag's appearance, and prohibiting practices such as printing advertisements on it. Finally, in 1912, a uniform design was established.

Overlay onto that time line the flags themselves, and witness that each example reflects the era, the maker, and the status of the union. Whether crafted of fabric or paper, hand-sewn or machine-made, each represents a moment in our history and is fascinating to behold. Ours is a flag created by its people for its people.

"It was not imposed on us from a conquering people, or handed down from an existing culture," says Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Massachusetts, and a full-time vexillologist (someone who studies flags -- he coined the term in his teens). Ours is also the first flag in history that is secular in design. It says we are American, not because of religion or race, nor, Smith says, "because we have a king, a common language, or an aristocracy," but because we are free.

Inherent in that freedom is an understanding that we are also free to have a distinctly American response to the flag. Over time we have sewn its stars into constellations representing commemorative dates, printed our grief directly onto its cloth to mourn the assassination of a president, and displayed political messages on it when mounting campaigns. We have printed, sewn, and dyed it on various fabrics, left off or added stripes, altered its size, painted it on our faces, and draped it over the shoulders of our Olympians before they take their victory laps. Our federal laws include guidelines for respectful display and handling of the flag, but making alterations such as these has long been a way of responding to the changing union. "The flag represents the very freedoms that allow us to do that," says J. Richard Pierce, a New Jersey flag collector and author of The Stars and Stripes: Fabric of the American Spirit (J. Richard Pierce; 2005). Even among collectors, he notes, freedom of expression is rampant: Some people seek out flags as folk art; some have interest in the textiles; and others collect for design, political statement, or, as Pierce describes the motivation behind his own two-hundred-piece collection, to "capture and preserve events from history that are an important part of the evolution of our country."