12 Fun Facts About the U.S. Flag

iStock/MarianVejcik
iStock/MarianVejcik

Happy Flag Day! If you’re wondering what June 14th has to do with the Stars and Stripes, why the flag looks the way it does, who came up with it, who paid for it, what you can and can’t do with it, and how those flags on the moon are holding up … we salute you!

1. THE FIRST FLAG WAS COMMISSIONED WITH A PAYMENT OF "THREE STRINGS OF WAMPUM."

By 1777, the U.S. was still waffling on the exact look of its flag. This was a cause for concern for Thomas Green, an American Indian who wanted the protection of an official flag while traveling through treacherous territory to Philadelphia. Thomas asked for help from Congress, throwing in the aforementioned payment to sweeten the deal. Within 10 days, a resolution was passed, finalizing the flag as a creation with 13 stars and 13 stripes. The date: June 14th, 1777.

2. BETSY ROSS MIGHT NOT BE AS TIED TO THE FLAG AS WE THOUGHT.

She may have sewn quite a few in her day, but there is no actual evidence that Betsy Ross was the person responsible for the design of the U.S. Flag. In fact, Betsy’s name didn’t even come up in conjunction with the deed until 1876, 40 years after her death. The first person to have made that claim publicly was New Jersey Congressman Francis Hopkinson in 1780, who had hoped (in vain) to earn a "quarter cask of the public wine" for his efforts. Apparently, he didn't take wampum.

An aside: There also seems to be dispute as to whether Betsy Ross even lived in Philadelphia’s popular Betsy Ross House.

3. THE FLAG HAS ALWAYS HAD 13 STRIPES … EXCEPT WHEN IT DIDN'T.

Upon welcoming Vermont and Kentucky—states 14 and 15—into the union, a new version of the flag was created that had 15 stars and 15 stripes. As the U.S. continued to add new states, there was concern about having to continually add additional stripes. The solution: revert to 13 to represent the original 13 colonies, and let the stars do the heavy lifting.

4. SOME OF THE STAR FIELDS HAVE BEEN PRETTY STRANGE LOOKING.

As of 1818, conventions concerning the numbers of stars and stripes were cemented and remain in place today. However, one thing remained un-codified: star layout. With this lack of official guidelines, some designers got creative…in kind of a Microsoft Paint-way.

26-star "star" flag:

33-star Ft. Sumter flag:

Which looks a lot like this, yes?

Courtesy of BBRCreative

38-star concentric creation:

5. THE DAKOTAS THREW OFF THE STAR-DESIGN PLANS.

There have been 27 official versions of the U.S. flag, each with a different number of stars. A 39-star version is not among them, but that didn’t stop some enterprising flag manufacturers from producing one for the marketplace. The reason for the miscalculation: Some thought North Dakota and South Dakota were going to be admitted as one state.

6. THE 50-STAR PATTERN WAS CREATED BY A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT.

When Alaska and Hawaii became states 49 and 50, President Eisenhower received thousands of ideas for an updated flag. Almost all of them were for a 50-star flag, including one from Robert G. Heft, a 17-year-old student at Lancaster (Ohio) High, who created the design for a class project. He was one of three to submit the version that was accepted and remains in use today.

Robert got a B- on his project.

7. THE 50-STAR FLAG IS THE FIRST ONE TO HAVE LASTED 50 YEARS.

In contrast, over a 50-year period in the early 1800s, the flag went through 17 different versions.

8. THE ACTUAL FLAG THAT INSPIRED "THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER" STILL EXISTS.

The flag that flew at Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812, immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s tune, is one of the few remaining specimens of a 15-star, 15-bar flag. What’s left of it is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

9. A SNIPPET OF THAT FLAG SOLD AT AUCTION IN 2011 FOR $38,000.

We say "what’s left of it" because the flag in question was a victim of "souveniring," a once-common practice where sections from flags were snipped off and sold as mementos. The 2" x 5" swatch in question was taken from the flag in the 1800s.

10. THE FLAG DESECRATION AMENDMENT FAILED IN 2006.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have prohibited not only burning the flag (for political reasons) but printing it on disposable items such as t-shirts or napkins. The amendment fell one vote short in the Senate.

11. EVEN IF IT HAD PASSED, BURNING A FLAG IS A-OK...

…as long as it’s already damaged beyond repair. It’s one way that the flag may be disposed of in a “dignified manner,” according to the U.S. Flag Code.

Then again, if the U.S. Flag Code got its way, the stars and stripes wouldn’t appear in advertising either.

12. OF THE SIX FLAGS PLANTED ON THE MOON, FIVE OF THEM ARE STILL STANDING.

The one that’s not: the first one, planted by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission. Readers of a certain age might also recognize the now-fallen flag from the original MTV bumper.

See Also: The Pledge of Allegiance was written in part to sell flags to schools.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

Jane Austen's Handwritten Letter About a Nightmarish Visit to the Dentist Is Up for Auction

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

For about $100,000, you could own a tangible reminder that Jane Austen hated going to the dentist, too—even when she wasn’t the patient.

After escorting her three nieces to a dentist named Spence in 1813, Austen was so appalled at the dental practices of the time that she described them to her sister Cassandra in a letter, which could now sell for $80,000 to $120,000 at an auction later this week. Smithsonian reports that the value is so high partially because only 161 of an estimated 3000 letters written by the celebrated author still exist; the rest were destroyed by Austen’s family after her death, possibly to avoid personal matters from leaking to the public.

jane austen letter about the dentist
Bonhams

This letter doesn’t contain anything particularly private, but it does provide some intimate insight into Austen—who famously remained unmarried and childless herself—as a doting aunt and sister.

“The poor Girls & their Teeth!” she wrote. “We were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all … we heard each of the two sharp hasty screams.”

While Austen doesn’t speculate about whether or not the work on the aforementioned nieces’ teeth was necessary, she definitely had an opinion about Spence’s treatment of her third (and favorite) niece Fanny.

“Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too—& pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely … but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief to parade about Fannys [sic].”

If you think a visit to the dentist is uncomfortable in the age of anesthetics and easily accessible milkshakes, you can imagine that getting teeth filed, filled, and pulled in the early 19th century was a full-fledged nightmare. The main fix for a cavity was simply pulling the tooth out, which the Jane Austen Center explains was often done with a pelican or key, both metal instruments that were braced against the gum and then twisted to tear out the tooth.

In addition to the horrifying dental report, Austen also writes about her mother’s improving health, a visit to a family friend, and a department store shopping trip.

Bonhams will include the letter in their annual Americana and Travel auction in New York on Wednesday, October 23.

Curious to know more about the woman behind Pride and Prejudice? Check out eight intriguing facts here.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series: HBO's Catherine the Great, which debuts on October 21, 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't Catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
iStock.com/traveler1116
  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

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