Stars & Stripes

by Kids Discover

You’ve probably seen the American flag thousands of times. But how closely have you looked? How many stripes are there? What color is the top stripe? The bottom stripe? How many stars are in each row? How are they arranged?

A glance at any flag reveals the answers, but not the stories behind this great American symbol. For those, you’ll need to read on.

In the Beginning

…was a flag with no stars at all. It was called the Grand Union Flag, and consisted of the now-familiar 13 stripes plus a variation of Great Britain’s Union Jack in the upper left corner.

Grand Union Flag Of 1776

Kean Collection/Getty Images

The Grand Union was first flown on December 3, 1775. It was our unofficial flag on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed (July 4, 1776) and remained so until June 14, 1777 when the Continental Congress adopted the following resolution:

Resolved, that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union [upper corner] be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new Constellation.

That was it. The Framers offered no further guidance about the flag. How wide should the stripes be? What shade of red? How should the stars be arranged? How many points should they have?

Since Congress was silent, flag designers were free to come up with their own ideas. And they did. Some flags had stars in rows of four and five; others in rows of two and three. Even the stars varied. Some had five points; others had six; still others had eight points. Even their orientation varied.

The Betsy Ross flag is one of the most well-known of the early flags. (Francis G. Mayer/Corbis)

Growing and Changing

In 1791 and 1792 Vermont and Kentucky became states. To represent these additions to the nation, two stripes and two stars were added to the flag. This would be the official flag of our country — and the only one to ever have 15 stripes — until 1818.

By that time, it had become clear that adding a stripe for every new state would be unworkable. What to do? The Congress of 1818 had the answer. That year, President Madison signed the Flag Act, specifying that the flag shall have 13 stripes and one star for each state.  A new star would be added on the first July 4th after a state was admitted to the Union.

Now, the overall design of the flag was set. But everything else — the proportions and the arrangement and orientation of the stars — was still up for grabs. It would be almost a hundred years before those matters were finalized.

The Flag Takes Shape

In 1912, President Taft signed an Executive Order that specified almost every detail of the flag: Its proportions, the arrangement of stars, and even the fact that a single point of each star must face upward.

The diagram shows the ratio of each part of the flag compared to its height. For example, however high the flag is (1.0), its length is almost twice its height (1.9). (Liberty Flags ®)

US Flag, 1960

The only change to President Taft’s Executive Order came in 1959, when President Eisenhower changed the arrangement of stars to provide for Alaska and Hawaii, our 49th and 50th states. (Termansen & Molbech/DK/Getty Images)








Handle with Care

Every detail about handling the flag is prescribed. Want to know how to raise the flag properly? How to lower it? Where and how to display it? When to display it? What to do in bad weather? How to hang the flag from a flagpole? Over the middle of a street? Along a wall? In a corridor? When flags from other nations are present? These and scores of other questions are answered in the Federal Flag Code, which even specifies the proper way to fold the flag. The Code was established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942. Here are some examples:

  • The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire  distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
  • The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
  • The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
  • The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.
  • The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) ca

A “reversed field flag” is worn on the right sleeve of a military uniform, placing the stars on the right, closest to the heart and advancing, not retreating.  (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The Star Spangled Banner

The flag has been a source of pride and inspiration throughout our history. Perhaps the most famous example involves Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to what would become our national anthem.

The incident that inspired Key took place at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, in the midst of war with Great Britain: It was dawn on September 14, 1814. Throughout the night and the preceding day Britain had bombarded Fort McHenry relentlessly. Into the night Francis Scott Key watched the gruesome fireworks, taking heart that as long as the British were firing, the Americans had not surrendered.

Then at 1:00 a.m. the air became still. Had the Americans surrendered? Had the British given up?

The anxiety was excruciating, and it would last until daylight. Then, as the predawn darkness lifted, the truth of the night’s events emerged: The flag — our stars and stripes — was still there! The Americans had prevailed.

Inspired, Key penned a poem that told the story. Set to music, the lyrics became popular immediately, and in 1931 the song was made into our national anthem.

How many of the words do you know?

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The Stars and Stripes Speak

The Stars and Stripes is the ultimate symbol of our country. When we want to say, “An American was here first,” we fly the flag. When we want to say, “An American has won the contest,” we show the flag. When we want to say, “America has been victorious,” we raise the flag.

The flag is a representation of our country and an essential source of pride and inspiration.


Americans were the first, and so far the only, human beings to set foot on the moon. What else would the astronauts use to mark the landing but the flag, seen here in this 1969 photo. (NASA)

Olympic Skier

An American skier shows the flag at the moment of Olympic victory. (Chrisopher J. Morris/Corbis)

Marines Raising American Flag on Iwo Jima

In this famous World War II photo from 1945, soldiers raise the flag over Iwo Jima, signaling a key victory for the United States. (Joe Rosenthal/Corbis)

What does the flag inspire you to create?

Written by Marjorie Frank.