By Blaine Whipple, ©1999
Most of us from the various American Whipple lineages recognize the Betsy Ross flag of 13 stars, the 48-star flag those of us who saw the light of day before 1959 (Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union as the 49th and 50th states on January 3, and August 21 1959), and the current flag of half a hundred stars. But how many of us Whipples know about the 48-star Whipple Flag (named after its designer, Wayne Whipple)?
The American flag evolved over many years and did not spring into existence when Betsey Ross finished her work in Philadelphia. The first flag to have been raised on the North American continent was probably flown by Eric the Red or his son Leif when they raised the Viking sea rovers' banner (a black raven on a white field) in 1000 A.D. The first flag linked to the future Stars and Stripes was probably the red ensign with small white upper canton, the ancient symbol of England (the Cross of St. George) raised by the English settlers of Jamestown and Plymouth.
The stern Puritans of New England, objecting to the Cross of St. George, deleted it and flew a flag with a plain white canton( 1 ) on the red field( 2 ). How prophetic. A field ready to receive white strokes with the empty canton waiting for a bright cluster of American stars( 3 ). The molet (rowel of a knight's spur) was accepted as a star, emblems of the states joined together in solemn union.
The first documented appearance of the stripes was in mid 1775 on the regimental flag of Philadelphia troop. The first recorded mention of a star used on an American ensign (flag) was in The Massachusetts Spy of May 10, 1774( 4 ): A ray of bright glory now beams from afar,/ The American ensign now sparkles a star,/ Which shall shortly flame wide through the skies.
Two devices, stars and stripes, form the national flag. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed its Flag Resolution which described the flag only in general terms. "Resolved that the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation." There was no indication of shape, size, or arrangement. What became the American flag went through several evolutions from this time onward.
From the beginning, license was taken with the number of stripes. In 1795, a "Second Flag" of 15 stars and 15 stripes was decreed by Congress in honor of Kentucky and Vermont joining the Union. Theoretically, from then on one star and one stripe were to to be added for each new state. However, nine and 13 stripes continued in symbolic use simultaneously with a number corresponding to the number of states in the Union. Eventually, it was found to be easier, cheaper, and more practical to keep the flag up to date by only adding stars.
Modern usage refers to the stars and stripes. But officially, the stripes were named ahead of the stars in the original Flag Resolution of 1777, the second of 1795, and the Final Act to Establish the Flag in 1818. Revolutionary soldiers fought under "rebellious stripes" and in some of the earlier flags, the canton of stars was so small it suggests reluctance to include them at all.
Verbally and visually, the stripes prevailed for years. In 1814 Francis Scott Key hailed the "broad stripes and bright stars.." In 1829 the song Our Flag told us to "Behold the glorious stripes and stars." In 1856, composer Edward J. Allen wrote we should "unfurl . . . the gleaming stripes and stars" and in 1861 Harrison Millard wrote of ". . . our stripes and stars, lov'd and honored by all" in his popular Flag of the Free.
Early U.S. naval ensigns were dominated by two patterns: staggered which placed the stars in over-lapping square or rectangular units of five and the plainer fashion of placing the stars in three parallel rows. In 1818, the "Great Star" or "Great Luminary" pattern emerged. It was used for the first national flag of 20 stars flown over the Capitol on April 13. The 20 stars were grouped to form one large star. Ships in New York Harbor on July 4, 1857 flew a variety of flags. Most had the stars arranged in five horizontal rows of six stars each (30 in all, but 31 was then the proper number). Some had one large star formed of 31 smaller stars; others had them in a diamond or a circle; another had 31 stars in the form of an anchor; another had the anchor embellished with a circle of small stars. Other flags have used the rattlesnake and the eagle, sometimes together. The Many different eagle flags and "standards of the eagle" were created during the Civil War.
A contest to design the classical style of American heraldry was held in the first decade of the twentieth century. The flag designed by Wayne Whipple, well known as the author of popular works on American history( 5 ), was chosen in 1912 from among 500 entries. Whipple's flag was approved by President William Howard Taft, widely publicized throughout the nation, and produced. The Whipple flag epitomized American history. Its 48 stars are arranged in a central six-pointed "Great Star" to symbolize the 13 original states similar to both the Great Seal and the "Great Star" patterns of many early flags. The ring of stars around the "Great Star" represents the states admitted to the Union up to the time of the First Centennial exposition of 1876. An outer ring -- with space for future additions -- symbolizes the states admitted since the Centennial. For some unknown reason, it fell into disuse and the last of the "Great Star" flags disappeared.
Whipple called his flag the "Peace Flag" in tribute to the global peace movement in the years preceeding World War I. In late August 1913, the "Peace Flag" name was used, unrelatedly, at a meeting of nations at The Hague, Netherlands. Unfortunately, no universal Peace Flag could be decided upon. But the nations agreed that each would have as a Peace Flag its own flag surrounded by a white border. For a time thereafter, the U.S. Peace Flag was the Stars and Stripes within the prescribed white frame.
Originality in American flag design ended early in the twentieth century. In 1923 and 1924, patriotic associations formulated a flag etiquette which came to be known as the Flag Code. It became federal law in 1942.
1 Canton: the four square divisions placed one at each corner of a shield or escrutcheon and always less than a quarter of the total surface.
2 Field: The surface of a flag which functions as a background for its devices.
3 Example: The field of the canton in the Stars and Stripes is blue and bears white stars; the balance of the field consists of horizontal red and white stripes.
4 Shortly after the time of the Boston Massacre.
5 Among them were: The Story-Life of Lincoln, The Story of the White House and Its Home Life, The Minute Man, The Story of Plymouth Rock.