The national flag of the United States of America is often simply referred to as the “American Flag”, and it consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton (referred to specifically as the “union“) bearing fifty small, white, five pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternating with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states of the United States of America and the 13 stripes represent the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain and became the first states in the Union. Nicknames for the flag include the “Stars and Stripes“, “Old Glory“, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” (also the name of the national anthem).
The modern meaning of the flag was forged in December 1860 when Major Robert Anderson, acting without orders, moved the U.S. garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, in defiance of the power of the new Confederate States of America. Adam Goodheart argues this was the opening move of the Civil War, and the flag was used throughout the North to symbolize American nationalism and rejection of secessionism.
Before that day, the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like the Fourth of July. But in the weeks after Major Anderson's surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew - as it does today, and especially as it did after the September 11 attacks in 2001 - from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads. For the first time American flags were mass-produced rather than individually stitched and even so, manufacturers could not keep up with demand. As the long winter of 1861 turned into spring, that old flag meant something new. The abstraction of the Union cause was transfigured into a physical thing: strips of cloth that millions of people would fight for, and many thousands die for.
The flag of the United States is one of the nation's most widely recognized symbols. Within the United States, flags are frequently displayed not only on public buildings but on private residences. The flag is a common motif on decals for car windows, and clothing ornaments such as badges and lapel pins. Throughout the world the flag has been used in public discourse to refer to the United States, not only as a nation, state, government, and set of policies, but also as a set of ideals. The flag has become a powerful symbol of Americanism, and is proudly flown on many occasions, with giant outdoor flags used by retail outlets to draw customers. Desecration of the flag is considered a public outrage, but remains protected as freedom of speech. In worldwide comparison, Testi (2010) notes that the United States is not unique in adoring its banner, for in Scandinavian countries their flags are also “beloved, domesticated, commercialized and sacralized objects“.
When Alaska and Hawaii were being considered for statehood in the 1950s, more than 1,500 designs were spontaneously submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although some of them were 49-star versions, the vast majority were 50-star proposals. At least three of these designs were identical to the present design of the 50-star flag. At the time, credit was given by the executive department to the United States Army Institute of Heraldry for the design. Of these proposals, one created by 17-year-old Robert G. Heft in 1958 as a school project received the most publicity. His mother was a seamstress, but refused to do any of the work for him. He originally received a B minus for the project. After discussing the grade with his teacher, it was agreed (somewhat jokingly) that if the flag was accepted by Congress, the grade would be reconsidered. Heft's flag design was chosen and adopted by presidential proclamation after Alaska and before Hawaii was admitted into the union in 1959. According to Heft, his teacher did keep to their agreement and changed his grade to an A for the project. Both the 49- and 50-star flags were each flown for the first time ever at Fort McHenry on the Fourth of July one year apart, 1959 and 1960 respectively.
Traditionally, the flag may be decorated with golden fringe surrounding the perimeter of the flag as long as it does not deface the flag proper. Ceremonial displays of the flag, such as those in parades or on indoor posts, often use fringe to enhance the beauty of the flag.
The flag is customarily flown all year-round at most public buildings, and it is not unusual to find private houses flying full-size(3' x 5') flags. Some private use is year-round, but becomes widespread on civic holidays like Memorial Day, Veterans day, President’s Day, Flag Day, and on Independence Day. On Memorial Day it is common to place small flags by war memorials and next to the graves of U.S. war veterans. Also on Memorial Day it is common to fly the flag at half staff, until noon, in remembrance of those who lost their lives fighting in U.S. wars.
Some people believe that each fold of the flag also carries a symbolic meaning, but there is no authority for their belief. A religiously inspired ceremony was taught to soldiers but after protests at the overt religious themes, the Pentagon withdrew it.
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