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History of the American Flag

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 71 July/August 1999

Like America itself, the flag has evolved significantly since its birth more than two hundred years ago.

The Legend of Betsy Ross
According to legend, George Washington asked a Philadelphia seamstress to create the first American flag from his sketches. Betsy Ross did sew flags during the Revolutionary War, but historians consider the tale to be folklore and agree that the design was probably proposed by a lawyer, artist, and patriot named Francis Hopkinson.

The Continental Congress
The first flag to represent the unified thirteen colonies was the Continental Colors, flown for the first time in January 1776. Its design reflected the dual loyalties of the colonists. Because they were still fighting for their rights as Englishmen, the flag had a Union Jack in its upper-left corner; the thirteen red and white stripes (one stripe for each colony) were most likely inspired by the flag of the Sons of Liberty, a radical patriotic group.

Flag Day
The Union Jack was officially removed from the flag on June 14, 1777, which is still commemorated by Flag Day. On this date, Congress adopted a new flag -- Stars and Stripes -- an independent new nation. The new flag would display thirteen white stars on a blue field, marking the first time stars were used on a flag of such stature.

The Modern Flag
In 1795, two new stars and two new stripes were added in recognition of two new states, Vermont and Kentucky. In theory, the flag was to acquire another star and stripe for each new state, but this proved impractical. So in 1818, the design reverted to thirteen stripes, with only an additional star representing each new state -- system still in effect. The fiftieth star was added in 1960, after Hawaii joined the union, completing the flag we know today.