How much do you know about the American flag?

National Constitution Center
American seamstress Betsy Ross
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American seamstress Betsy Ross showing the first design of the American flag to George Washington in Philadelphia.   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the 200th birthday of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” here are 10 fascinating facts about Stars and Stripes that may surprise you!

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The United States’ national anthem’s birthday is officially on Saturday, but here are a few tidbits about our flag’s heritage to get your ready for the big anniversary.

Francis Scott Key wrote his poem about the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore on September 13, 1814. Within days, the poem became very popular and it was eventually set to music. In 1931, the “Star-Spangled Banner” became the first official national anthem for the United States.

1. The flag predates the Constitution.

The flag was authorized by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. The motion read, “Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white: that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The Constitution was written 10 years after that and ratified in 1789.

2. What’s the deal with Betsy Ross?

Historians are still debating Betsy’s role in designing the first flag, but she recounted that she was asked to sew the flag by her fellow churchgoer, George Washington. Ross had also done some seamstress work for Washington. You can read the debates online,  but here’s what the historic marker in front of her house says: “Credited with making the first stars and stripes flag, Ross was a successful upholsterer. She produced flags for the government for over 50 years. As a skilled artisan, Ross represents the many women who supported their families during the Revolution and early Republic.”

3. What exactly is a vexillologist?

A vexillologist is a flag expert. It’s a relatively new word, coming into use in 1959. According to the North American Vexillological Association, there are currently no degrees offered on the subject.

4. Who approves design changes in the flag?

Congress and the president have ordered design changes in the past to accommodate the addition of new states. President James Monroe and Congress agreed in 1818 that there should be 13 stripes as well as one star for each state in the Union.

5. Who decides the rules for flag etiquette?

It’s in the federal code as Chapter 1 of Title 4. The law also includes the approved text of the Pledge of Allegiance.

6. Where outside the United States can you see the flag continuously 24 hours a day?

There are five American flags flying on the moon, thanks to the Apollo astronauts. You may not be able to see markings on them, though; they have mostly likely turned white over the years.

7. Which flag had the snake on it?

You’ve probably seen the yellow flag with a coiled rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” This is the Gadsden flag, named after its designer, General Christopher Gadsden. The flag was used in the Revolutionary War. There are other variations of the flag with rattlesnakes and versions of the motto. Benjamin Franklin was one of the originators of the snake as an American political symbol, in a famous 1754 political cartoon.

8. Where was the first flag flown outside the U.S. in a military action?

It was first flown over the shores of Tripoli. The Marines were involved in military actions against the Barbary pirates and after they hit the shore, they raised the Stars and Stripes. After the Battle of Derne in 1805, the flag was raised on foreign soil for the first time after a battle.

9. What is Francis Scott Key’s flag connection?

Key witnessed the American flag flying after a British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814, while he was a guest on a British ship as he negotiated for the return of American prisoners. His experience inspired him to write a poem, “Defence of Fort McHenry.” After it was published, Key matched it up with music from a popular British tune, which eventually became “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. By the way, if “vexillology” wasn’t enough fun, here’s another one: the act of adding new lyrics to an existing song is called “contrafactum.”

10. What’s the biggest American flag?

It’s so big you can’t fly it, but the “Superflag” conceived of by the late Thomas Demski measures 505 by 225 feet and weighs 3,000 pounds. It takes 600 people to unfurl. Each star is 17 feet high. Bonus fact: The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia has its own giant American flag on display in its Grand Hall Overlook, surrounded by the flags of all the U.S. states and territories and with the iconic Independence Hall in the background. The flag has flown over the capitals of all 50 states and was hung by Muhammad Ali in a special Flag Day ceremony on June 14, 2003, when the museum opened.

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