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12 Fun Facts About the U.S. Flag

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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.

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Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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