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11 Myths About the American Flag

Don't believe everything you've heard about the Stars and Stripes

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The American flag has evolved over time along with the nation. The first official red, white and blue flag bearing 13 stars and 13 stripes debuted in 1777. Today's familiar 50-star flag dates back to 1960, the year after Alaska and Hawaii became states. Legends and misconceptions about the flag have also evolved over time. Here's a closer look at 11 myths about the American flag and the truth behind each of them.

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Myth #1: The flag has always had stars and stripes

America's earliest flags did not have stars and stripes. A flag used in 1775, for example, did have stripes, but it displayed the British Union Jack crosses in the canton, the top left corner of the flag that's also known as the union. The primary use of a national flag at that time was for naval ships to be able to recognize each other.

Congress didn't adopt the flag with 13 stars and 13 stripes as the official U.S. flag until 1777.

Myth #2: Betsy Ross created the first American flag

The familiar story of George Washington walking into a shop and asking Betsy Ross to sew a flag originated with William Canby, a grandson of Ross, said Peter Ansoff, president of the North American Vexillological Association, a group devoted to the study of flags. Canby presented his tale with little supporting evidence to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870, nearly a century after the original flag was created. He claimed Ross told him the story right before her death in 1836, when he would have been around 11 years old.

"Obviously, he was still a youngster at the time, and he was writing this much later than that,” Ansoff said. “There are many discrepancies in the story — some things that just don't make sense."

Since Washington was out in the field commanding the army, for example, he didn't spend much time in Philadelphia, where Ross’ upholstery shop was located. Additionally, flags were first made not for ground troops but for naval forces, which Washington had little to do with, Ansoff said. The true creator of the first American flag is likely lost to history.

Myth #3: Americans have always flown the flag

Prior to the Civil War, flags were really only flown in an official capacity on ships, forts and government buildings. “In the antebellum period, if a citizen had flown his flag on his house or carriage, people would have thought that was strange. Why is he doing that? He's not the government,” Ansoff said.

The outbreak of war in 1861 quickly changed Americans’ attitudes about displaying the flag.

"At the beginning of the Civil War there was an outburst of patriotism,” Ansoff said, “and very soon, you saw people flying flags everywhere to show their support for the Union cause."

Myth #4: Red, white and blue have official meanings

The colors of the flag were not assigned any official meaning when the first flag was adopted in 1777. The traditional meanings assigned to the colors may have arisen five years later, in 1782, when Charles Thompson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, waxed poetic about the colors in the Great Seal of the United States, which he helped design. Thompson described the red in the seal as representing hardiness and valor; the white, purity and innocence; and the blue, vigilance, perseverance and justice.

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As for the origin of the red-white-and-blue color scheme, it's likely no coincidence that the British flag bore the same three colors.

Myth #5: It's against the law to burn the American flag

In the landmark case Texas v. Johnson in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that desecrating the American flag is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Defendant Gregory Lee Johnson had burned a flag in an act of protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. Prior to that ruling it was, indeed, illegal to burn the flag.

Subsequent efforts on the judicial and legislative fronts to make flag burning illegal again have failed.

Myth #6: It's illegal to wear clothing bearing the flag

Wearing clothing made from an actual American flag would be a breach of etiquette, according to the American Legion, but it said you wouldn't be breaking the law by wearing clothing bearing a flag design: “People are simply expressing their patriotism and love of country by wearing an article of clothing that happens to be red, white, and blue with stars and stripes. There is nothing illegal about the wearing or use of these items."

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Myth #7: A flag that touches the ground must be destroyed

What is the Flag Code?

The Flag Code is a set of flag etiquette guidelines developed in 1923 by the American Legion and other organizations. It instructs when the flag should be displayed; manners and methods of displaying it; and buildings where it should be raised. There are detailed specifications for displaying the flag at half-staff and even how to deliver the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Flag Code was adopted by Congress in 1942, but it does not have an enforcement mechanism, and there are no flag police. States have attempted to punish people who disrespect the flag. However, their efforts were struck down by the Supreme Court as free-speech violations.

Sources: The American Legion and the Congressional Research Service

According to the Flag Code, the American flag should never touch anything beneath it, including the ground, the floor or the water. “People have taken that to mean that if it ever does that, then it should be destroyed,” said Jeff Hendricks, deputy director of Americanism at the American Legion.

However, that's not necessarily the case. Flags should be destroyed only when they are no longer in good enough condition to be displayed. If touching the ground didn't render the flag unfit for display, then it shouldn't be destroyed. Once a flag is unfit for display, burning it is the preferred method of destruction.

Myth #8: The flag should never be flown at night

Although it's customary to display the American flag from sunrise to sunset, the flag can be displayed 24 hours a day as long as it is illuminated through the night, according to the Flag Code.

"What we've taken that to mean is that it must have sufficient light that the average passerby can readily identify it as the flag of the United States,” Hendricks said.

Myth #9: Only a veteran's coffin can be draped with the American flag

"Nowhere in [the Flag Code] does it say that the flag may only cover the casket of a veteran,” said Hendricks, noting that the myth may stem from the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs provides flags for the services of veterans and active-duty service members. “However, there's nothing in the language of the Flag Code that would prevent anyone else from having a flag that covers their casket."

When a flag is used to cover a coffin, it should be placed with the union — the blue field with stars — at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.

Myth #10: The flag must always be folded into a triangle for storage

Folding a flag into a triangle for storage, with only the blue union and stars visible, is part of tradition, said Hendricks, not a requirement of the Flag Code. Flags on a staff are properly stored in an entirely different manner that doesn't involve folding.

"Flags that are affixed to a staff are typically rolled around the staff and then a burlap case is placed over the flag and staff,” he said. “So, at that point, you can handle it like luggage. It's been properly stored."

Myth #11: A flag with fewer than 50 stars should not be flown

Any American flag that was officially recognized during its time is still considered a living flag and should be respected, regardless of the number of stars on it. These flags can continue to be flown until they become unserviceable. It's important to note that whenever a new state is admitted into the United States, one star should be added to the flag on the next Fourth of July following the admission.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published July 2, 2020, has been updated with additional information.

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