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.

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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