The American flag has evolved over time along with nation. The first official red, white and blue flag bearing 13 stars and 13 stripes debuted in 1777. Today’s familiar 50-star flag dates back to 1960, the year after Alaska and Hawaii became states. Legends and misconceptions about the flag have also evolved over time. Here’s a closer look at 10 myths about the American flag and the truth behind each of them.
Myth #1: Betsy Ross created the first American flag
The familiar story of George Washington walking into a shop and asking Betsy Ross to sew a flag originated with William Canby, a grandson of Ross, said Peter Ansoff, president of the North American Vexillological Association, a group devoted to the study of flags. Canby presented his tale with little supporting evidence to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870, nearly a century after the original flag was created. He claimed Ross told him the story right before her death in 1836, when he would have been around 11 years old.
“Obviously, he was still a youngster at the time, and he was writing this much later than that,” Ansoff said. “There are many discrepancies in the story — some things that just don’t make sense.”
Since Washington was out in the field commanding the army, for example, he didn’t spend much time in Philadelphia, where Ross’ upholstery shop was located. Additionally, flags were first made not for ground troops but for naval forces, which Washington had little to do with, Ansoff said. The true creator of the first American flag is likely lost to history.
Myth #2: The flag has always had stars and stripes
America’s earliest flags did not have stars and stripes. A flag used in 1775, for example, did have stripes, but it displayed the British Union Jack crosses in the canton, the top left corner of the flag that’s also known as the union. The primary use of a national flag at that time was for naval ships to be able to recognize each other.
Congress didn’t adopt the flag with 13 stars and 13 stripes as the official U.S. flag until 1777.
Myth #3: Americans have always flown the flag
Prior to the Civil War, flags were really only flown in an official capacity on ships, forts and government buildings. “In the antebellum period, if a citizen had flown his flag on his house or carriage, people would have thought that was strange. Why is he doing that? He’s not the government,” Ansoff said.
The outbreak of war in 1861 quickly changed Americans’ attitudes about displaying the flag.
“At the beginning of the Civil War there was an outburst of patriotism,” Ansoff said, “and very soon, you saw people flying flags everywhere to show their support for the Union cause.”
Myth #4: Red, white and blue have official meanings
The colors of the flag were not assigned any official meaning when the first flag was adopted in 1777. The traditional meanings assigned to the colors may have arisen five years later, in 1782, when Charles Thompson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, waxed poetic about the colors in the Great Seal of the United States, which he helped design. Thompson described the red in the seal as representing hardiness and valor; the white, purity and innocence; and the blue, vigilance, perseverance and justice.
As for the origin of the red-white-and-blue color scheme, it’s likely no coincidence that the British flag bore the same three colors.