The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

"A New Constellation"

Today is a holiday that is often forgotten in between Memorial Day and Independence Day. Yet the reason for this holiday looms large in the celebration of both those other days. It is doubtful that there is any emblem used on those days that is more prominent than the one created on this date.

There are many stories about how the stars and stripes originated. Some believe that John Paul Jones flew the colors above his ship as early as 1775, a variation of the Grand Union Flag. Others say that, in 1776, Betsy Ross presented the first flag to George Washington, drawing special attention to the five-pointed stars used instead of six-pointed. Still others believe that it was Francis Hopkinson, a delegate to the Continental Congress, who came up with the design.

Grand Union Flag

What we do know is that on 14 June 1777, members of the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution which stated “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.” This set a general design for the flag official. While it is possible that this was meant to apply to maritime vessels because the resolution seems to have been forwarded by the Marine Committee, it was adopted as the flag of the newly independent colonies.

13-Star Flag of the United States (1777-1795)

Despite conflicting opinions on when and where the first iteration of the Stars and Stripes appeared, through the years it became clear that the citizens of the United States hold the flag in an elevated position (pun potentially purposeful) and that it deserves certain respect in its handling and display. It is important that people invoking patriotism with the flag understand and follow through with the proper etiquette meant to foster that same patriotism and reverence.

Betsy Ross variant (1777-1795)

Officially enacted on 30 July 1947, Title 4 of the United States Code (U.S.C.), begins with Chapter 1 – The Flag. Within this chapter are various specifications governing design, proportions, and treatment of the flag. In reading the flag code, it is interesting to note how many of its provisions are often ignored today. For instance, according to Title 4, Chapter 1, Sec.8 (c): “The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”

20-Star Great Star Flag of the United States (1818-1819)

Similarly, Title 4, Chapter 1, Sec.6 (a) states: “It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.” And according to Title 4, Chapter 1, Sec.6 (c): “The flag should not be flown during inclement weather, except when an all-weather flag is displayed,” Perhaps my favorite is the reminder, located in Title 4, Chapter 1, Sec.8 (d): “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery…”


38-Star Flag of the United STates (1877-1890)

And so, as we take a moment to honor Flag Day, just remember to call the authorities if you see the flag being used in advertising, because anyone engaged in such an action “shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $100 or by imprisonment for not more than thirty days, or both, in the discretion of the court.” (Title 4, Chapter 3)


50-Star Flag of the United States (1960-Present)

If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the flag of the United States, or the people responsible for it, visit our online catalog, ABIGAIL, and search for “flags” as a subject.

To see the Flag Code in its entirety, visit



All flag images from



permalink | Published: Friday, 14 June, 2013, 1:47 PM


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