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Teaching About The Grand Old Flag

Flag Day is June 14

The American flag has survived battles, inspired songs and reflected the growth of the country it represents.  Why not take some time to celebrate with your students what is arguably the best-known flag in all the world.

History of the American Flag

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia established an official flag for the new United States of America: “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.”  In 1949, President Harry S. Truman officially declared June 14 as Flag Day.  The story of this American institution is as exciting as the history of the nation itself.

Did Betsy Ross really sew the first American flag?

The story goes something like this… in May of 1776, a mysterious trio of visitors entered the home of a Philadelphia upholsterer by the name of Betsy Ross.  The most famous of the three was none other than George Washington, then commander of the Continental Army.  Ross knew Washington because their pews at Philadelphia’s Christ Church were next to each other.  In fact, Ross had embroidered ruffles for Washington’s shirts.

The men presented Ross with the plan for a new flag which included six-pointed stars, one for each of the colonies.  The seamstress showed them it was easier to cut out five-pointed stars and convinced them to make the change.  They appointed her to sew the first flag representing what would, in just weeks, become a new country.

As I said up front, that’s the story.  The Washington Post, however, debunked that tale in a 2011 opinion piece.

What’s in a name?

Formally, the flag is called “the flag of the United States of America”, but over the years, the American flag has been given many nicknames.

Sometime in the 1820s, a Massachusetts sea captain by the name of William Driver gave the moniker “Old Glory” to a large, 10-by-17-foot American flag flown on his ship.  The flag had been sewn by his mother.

The distinctive design of the flag made it unique, hence the nicknames “the Stars and Stripes” dating back to at least 1809 and “the Star-spangled Banner” dating from the War of 1812 (see more about this below).

There are many nations whose flags feature the colors red, white, and blue (e.g. France, the United Kingdom, North Korea), but there’s only one flag that goes by “the red, white, and blue”—the American flag.  Some think this nickname may have its origins in a line from George M. Cohan’s 1906 song You’re a Grand Old Flag: “ev’ry heart beats true, ‘neath the Red, White, and Blue.”  However, the American flag is lauded in Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean written in 1843: “Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!”

Design of the American Flag

The so-called Grand Union Flag was the model for the original design of the American flag.  Also known as the Continental Colors Flag, the Grand Union had 13 alternating red and white stripes, with the Union Jack (the flag of Great Britain) in the corner where the stars are placed today.  In 1777, Congress decreed the Union Jack be replaced with 13 white stars on a blue field, one for each state (13 at the time).

Colors

Over the years, Congressional acts changed the shape, design and arrangement of the flag and allowed stars to be added to reflect the admission of each new state.  Today the flag consists of seven red stripes alternating with six white.  The stripes represent the original 13 colonies, and the stars represent the 50 states of the Union.  Officially, the red used on the flag is known as “old glory red”, and the blue field of stars is “old glory blue”.  The stars are white, not gold or yellow.

Dimensions

The shape of the flag is also specified by Congress.  The ratio of width to length must always be 1:1.9.  The width of each stripe must be exactly 1/13 of the flag width.  The dimensions of the field of stars (known as “the Union”) are also specific.  Likewise, each star is 4/5 the width of a stripe.

Size

One aspect of the flag that is not dictated by law is its size.  The largest flying American flag can be found in Gastonia, North Carolina. The flag is 114 feet by 65 feet (7,410 square feet), and each stripe is five feet tall.  It’s attached to a massive pole that is over 225 feet tall and has a diameter of five feet.  On a clear day the flag can be seen from over 30 miles away.

The granddaddy of the grand old flag

The largest American Flag ever created, but, due to its size, was never flown, is a flag once owned by Thomas Demski, a former mayor of Long Beach, California.  This “superflag” is 505 feet by 225 feet and weighs 3,000 pounds.  Demski’s flag is about one-and-a-half football fields long.  Each star is a massive 17 feet high, and it takes 500 people to stretch out and hold the flag.

Flying the American Flag

The flag has flown over many places in the United States, its possessions, and its military and civilian facilities around the world.  The aforementioned superflag has been unfurled at Superbowls, the Washington Monument, and the Hoover Dam

The first time the American flag was flown overseas was in 1805 when the Stars and Stripes were hoisted over Fort Derne, on the shores of Tripoli in Libya.  The flag was placed at the North Pole in 1909 and on top of Mount Everest in 1963. (places the flag has flown)  The American flag has not been restrained by gravity, as Old Glory was first planted on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969.

Proper display of the flag

The American flag is usually displayed outdoors from sunrise until sunset.  The flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.  The flag should not be flown in inclement weather.  The flag should be flown daily, including all holidays, on or near all public institutions including polling places on election days and in front of schools when in session.  When displayed flat against a wall or a window, or in a vertical orientation, the field of stars should be at the top left of the observer.

The flag should be raised vigorously and lowered respectfully.  When the flag is raised or lowered as part of a ceremony, and as it passes by in parade or review, everyone, except those in uniform, should face the flag with the right hand over the heart.  The flag should never be dipped toward any person or object, nor should the flag ever touch the ground or anything beneath it.

The Pledge of Allegiance

The pledge has been an important part of civic life since 1923.  Countless school days have begun with this spoken anthem of loyalty to the flag and the nation.  According to the Flag Code, when the pledge is recited, it should be done “standing at attention facing the flag with one’s right hand over one’s heart.  When not in uniform men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.”

The American Flag in custom and tradition

The flag plays a central role as a symbol of the nation.  It is used to inspire, comfort, and galvanize Americans for a cause.

Songs about Old Glory

Many songs have been written about the flag over the years.  Probably the most celebrated is The Star-spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key’s tribute to the flag.  After a British bombardment in Baltimore Harbor in 1814, Key was inspired by the sight of the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry.  The song officially became the national anthem in 1931.  The original flag is displayed today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Other popular songs about the flag have been written over the years.  You’re a Grand Old Flag is a spirited patriotic song written by George M. Cohan in 1906 for his stage musical George Washington, Jr.  The Stars and Stripes Forever was written and composed by John Philip Sousa in 1896, and became the official march of the United States in 1987 by an act of the

U.S. Congress.  In his lyrics, Sousa’s praise for Old Glory is hyperbolic:

“Other nations may deem their flags the best

And cheer them with fervid elation

But the flag of the North and South and West

Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom’s nation.”

Songs about the flag reinforced Americans’ resilience following the terror attacks of September 11.  Charlie Daniels’ song This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag and Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American) reflected the feelings of millions of Americans.

Resources for Teaching about Flag Day

Help Teaching has created these educational resources on facts about flag day:

KidsKonnect.com offers these resources:

BusyTeacher.org has these free resources:

Your students will enjoy these videos about Flag Day:

These Free Flag Day resources are from the National Constitution Center:

Here are some delicious Easy Patriotic Cake Decorating Ideas from Chiff.com.

The United States Flag Code and other flag facts can be found at The American Legion’s website

So, “unfurl” these resources this Flag Day to help teach your students about the Grand Old Flag!

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