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She's a grand old flag

Lesson Plan

June 13, 2002 Posted: 3:34 PM EDT (1934 GMT)
Flag Day is celebrated on June 14
Flag Day is celebrated on June 14  

By Helyn Trickey

(CNN) -- It flutters atop Mount Everest. It waves at us from the barren landscape of the moon. It hangs proudly over the devastation that was, before September 11, the World Trade Center in New York.

These days, you see the American flag just about everywhere, from flagpoles to floral arrangements. With the approach of Flag Day on June 14, a holiday meant to celebrate the date in 1777 when the Stars and Stripes was officially adopted as America's national symbol, the historic banner takes on even more significance.

In fact, the famous design for our national symbol is a story of patriotism and dedication.

A covert assignment

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In the spring of 1776, Betsy Ross, a young seamstress in Philadelphia, was approached by three patriots needing a banner to rally their troops. They needed a flag that would represent a fledgling nation, George Washington, George Ross (an uncle by marriage) and Robert Morris told her.

They also needed her to be discreet, said Lisa Moulder, 25, archivist of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. Her sewing had to be a covert operation.

"The British were occupying Philadelphia at that time, so she had to sew it secretly," she said in a phone interview.

In addition, Ross belonged to the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. The religious group did not and does not condone war, so Ross sewing a flag for an upstart, revolutionary group would not have been accepted, said Moulder.

Design modification

Ross had but one reservation with the sketch of a proposed flag the committee handed her. "The sketch had a six-pointed star, but she complained that that was too difficult, too hard to make," said Moulder.

The Stars and Stripes hangs over the rubble in New York City
The Stars and Stripes hangs over the rubble in New York City  

Instead, the seamstress suggested a five-pointed star that she could make by folding material a certain way and snipping with her scissors in one place.

"As far as we know this is the only input Betsy Ross had in the design of the first flag," said Moulder.

The trio agreed to the amended design, and Ross accepted the assignment.

She put thread to needle, and in less than one year produced a flag with 13 red-and-white stitched stripes. The square of blue in the upper left-hand corner, or the canton, featured 13 white stars, one for each original colony.

New nation, new constellation

"The first flag had them in a circle, and it was meant to look like a new constellation in the sky," said Moulder

The canton changed quite a bit in the years following that first flag. Sometimes, Moulder said, the stars were organized in the shape of one giant star. In others, the stars assumed the shape of a square with one lone star in the center.

Still, that first flag is the one that brings people to Ross' tiny home on Arch Street in Old City Philadelphia. "Everyone wants to know where the first flag is," Moulder said.

That is an enduring mystery. It was probably used in battle, but nobody knows where it is or what happened to it, said Moulder. One woman's handiwork is a nation's signature.

Key dates in the life of the American flag:

Astronaut Neil Armstrong places the flag on the moon
Astronaut Neil Armstrong places the flag on the moon  

  • On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the following: "Resolved that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."
  • On August 14, 1945, the flag that flew over Pearl Harbor when it was attacked on December 7, 1941, is flown over the White House when the Japanese accept terms of surrender.
  • In 1963, Barry Bishop places the flag on the top of Mount Everest.
  • On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong places the American flag on the moon.

    Weekly Activities:
    Updated September 21, 2002

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