Understanding the Evolution of the American Flag

Understanding the Evolution of the American Flag
  • Opening Intro -

    Whether you know it as Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, or the Red, White, and Blue, the American flag is a symbol recognized around the world.

    But just as America wasn’t a finished product at its inception, neither was its flag.


As the country has changed, so has the flag, and it may continue to change as well. Here’s a guide to understanding the evolution of the American flag.


As the American colonies coalesced into an independent entity, several flags competed to be the leading symbol. The flag of New England used a series of red, white, and blue stripes with an evergreen tree in the upper-left corner, or canton. The Sons of Liberty flag featured alternating red and white stripes—a design element that would soon resurface.


Legend has it that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag in 1776. Her design featured thirteen alternating stripes of red and white along with a circle of thirteen stars on a field of blue in the upper-left canton.

Though the nascent American government didn’t immediately adopt her design, which was one of many, by 1777 the Continental Congress had ratified her design as the first official American flag.


The United States recognized its first expansion in 1795 after it added the states of Vermont and Kentucky. The canton now bore fifteen stars, and the flag featured fifteen alternating red and white stripes.

As the Union continued to expand, Congress made an important distinction between the stars and the stripes: from 1818 on, the stars in the canton would continue to represent the states in the Union, but the number of stripes—seven red, six white—would be fixed at thirteen to represent the thirteen original colonies. The number of stars would indeed grow through the years.


The additions of Arizona and New Mexico in 1912 brought the number of stars to 48, with the canton’s stars arranged in six rows of eight. This is the flag that flew during World War II and that Marines famously raised at Iwo Jima.

It was during the flying of this flag that an important step in the flag’s evolution took place: its exact shades of red and blue were officially standardized as the vibrant red and navy blue we recognize today.

The Present

The U.S. government adopted the current flag in early 1960, shortly after the additions of the first two noncontiguous states, Alaska and Hawaii. To accommodate the two new states, the stars were arranged in nine rows, with five rows of six stars alternating with three rows of seven.

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The Future

The current U.S. flag has been in use since 1960, but calls for statehood in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia invite the possibility that the flag will have to undergo its first modification in over sixty years—the longest any iteration of the flag has lasted.

A proposed 51-state flag would feature six rows of stars, alternating between rows of nine and eight. Understanding the evolution of the American flag means understanding that its evolution may continue into the future, too.

Image Credit: American Flag by Pixabay

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