A Brief History of Flag Day

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Ingloriously crammed between the summer’s other two big holidays – that would be Memorial Day and Labor Day – Flag Day doesn’t tend to get much respect. Perhaps things would be different if we got the day off, or if there was any kind of actual glamour surrounding the holiday, perhaps the advent of a signature Flag Day snack or cocktail? Or maybe Flag Day just needs something simple – like a brief history  to help contextualize it against the backdrop of summer’s better-known holidays.

What Is Flag Day?

Before we go digging for some Flag Day dirt, it seems prudent to address just what the holiday is actually meant to celebrate. Every June 14th, the United States doesn’t just celebrate the flag as a single entity; it actually celebrates the adoption of the flag itself, which happened nice and early in American history – June 14, 1777. Basically, Flag Day is the birthday of the American flag. Please don’t celebrate with candles and cake.

Flag Day’s Unfailing Supporters

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You’d think that getting a holiday to honor the most recognizable symbol of America, the Stars and Stripes, would be pretty easy. Sadly, you’d be wrong. Although the flag was adopted as the country’s official banner in 1777, it took nearly one hundred and fifty years for it to get its own holiday, something that a lot of people worked to make happen.

There’s some debate over who first suggested the holiday – one story holds that, in 1861, Hartford, Connecticut resident George Morris suggested the idea, which then led to a formal observance of the day (June 14th) in his hometown.

Other sources claim that it was B.J. Cigrand who invented Flag Day when the schoolteacher had his Wisconsin class celebrate it in 1885 at the Stony Hill School. Even if Cigrand didn’t really think up the day, he became its poster boy (he’s still known as “the Father of Flag Day”) and its biggest supporter, traveling around the country to chat up groups about the need for an official Flag Day and other ways to be patriotic. Cigrand eventually became editor-in-chief of American Emblem magazine, a publication dedicated to, well, American emblems. Later, Cigrand became the president of the American Flag Day Association and the National Flag Day Society.

In 1893, Pennsylvania resident (and Benjamin Franklin descendent) Elizabeth Duane Gillespie tried to get a state resolution passed that required the flag to be put on display in each of Philadelphia’s public buildings.

The next year, Flag Day was celebrated in Chicago, and the highly successful event was repeated the year after that. Flag Day was catching on!

In 1889, another schoolteacher, New York City’s George Balch, had his class celebrate Flag Day on June 14th, an idea that proved popular enough to be adopted by the State Education Board of New York for the whole state.

In 1907, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks officially designated June 14th as Flag Day, and the fraternal order and social club has celebrated it every year since (in 1911, they even made it mandatory for all Lodges to observe it, that’s how serious they are about Flag Day). The Elks even pushed the sitting President to give Flag Day some official status, which finally happened in 1916.

Why Don't We Get Flag Day Off?

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President Woodrow Wilson issued the proclamation that created the official holiday we know as “Flag Day,” way back in 1916. Yet the holiday didn’t become a national one until 1949, when an Act of Congress turned the day into “National Flag Day.” Ever wonder why we don’t get Flag Day off? Because it’s not a federal holiday, most of which are celebrated by the glory of a free day from work and school.

If you live in Pennsylvania or New York, though, your Flag Day experience might be a bit different – Pennsylvania adopted Flag Day as a state holiday back in 1937, and New York has designated the second Sunday of June as the official state holiday celebration of Flag Day.

The Army Connection

The flag shares its birthday with another important American institution – the United States Army, which was created as the “American Continental Army” by the same Second Continental Congress that passed the resolution to adopt the new flag.

Celebrating the Holiday

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What’s the best way to celebrate Flag Day? By flying your flag, of course! The week of June 14th is officially “National Flag Week,” and all U.S. citizens are encouraged to fly their flag for at least part of the period. You can get more serious with a parade or another fun event, as long as the flag is present and appropriately cared for and flown.

Want to really do up this Flag Day? Go visit the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia or Cigrand’s old school in Wisconsin, which has been fully restored to reflect the time period during which he supposedly thought up the holiday.

Other People’s Flags

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America is, of course, not the only country to celebrate the creation of their flag with an official Flag Day – Australia’s Flag Day is in September, Argentina also celebrates in June, and Canada honors their own maple leaf the day after Valentine’s Day.

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June 14, 2014 - 8:00am
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