The Flag of the United States of America: History, Meaning, and Symbolism

United States Flag
© charnsitr/Shutterstock.com

Written by Heather Hall

Updated: May 12, 2023

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The flag of the United States of America is also referred to as the American flag or the U.S. flag. Common nicknames for this flag are Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, and the Star-Spangled Banner. It has a long history and has been modified 26 times since its origination in 1777.

The United States of America is a country in North America that consists of 50 separate states, all ruled by one federal district. It also includes five unincorporated territories and nine outlying islands, as well as 326 Indian reservations. 

Regarding total area (land and water), America is the third largest country in the world, at 3,796,742 square miles. It is also the third largest country in terms of population, with 331 million people. The largest city in the United States is New York City, and the capital city is Washington, D.C. The federal government has not declared an official language, but English is the most commonly spoken language in the U.S.

As far as history goes, the first inhabitants migrated from Siberia over the Bering Land Bridge about 12,000 years ago, although some scientists speculate it could have been earlier. Over time, people created complex systems of agriculture and architecture. Many Norse, European, Spanish and French explorers visited the continent over the years, and who colonized there first is a controversial subject. No matter who was first, we do know that English settlement was successful along the eastern coast of North America in 1607 in Jamestown and in 1620 at Plymouth. These groups eventually formed the thirteen original colonies that would become the United States of America. 

Flag of the United States of America (American flag) blowing in the wind

The flag of the United States of America (American flag) has been modified 26 times since its origination in 1777.

©Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock.com

Flag of the United States of America: Description

The flag that represents America is made of thirteen equal stripes running horizontally. Six stripes are the color white, alternating with seven red stripes. A blue square is at the top left corner of the flag, taking up two-fifths of the flag’s width. Inside the blue area are fifty white stars. The stars start with a row of six and then a row of five, alternating to equal fifty in total. The flag may be decorated with gold fringe as long as it does not deface the flag in any way. This gold fringe is often used for parades, color guard ceremonies, or other events where extra enhancement of the flag is desired. 

Flag of the United States of America: Symbolism

When the flag was originally created in 1777, the meaning of the colors was not noted on any official document. In 1782 the Continental Congress released a statement saying that white stands for purity and innocence. Red stands for hardiness and valor. Blue represents vigilance, perseverance, and justice. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan said, “The colors of our flag signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish. Red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice.”

Statue of Liberty and American flag symbols of the American people

The colors used in the flag of the United States represent the ideals of the American people to include courage, purity and perseverance.

©iStock.com/:rarrarorro

Great Seal of the United States

The Great Seal was commissioned in 1776, formally adopted in 1782, and used until 1904. In 1904 a new die was created that is still in use today. The design shares a lot in common with the national flag of the United States.

Inside a golden circle with a white background flies an eagle with wings spread. He is holding an olive branch and arrows to symbolize peace and war. His head is turned toward the olive branch denoting America’s desire for peace. A constellation of 13 stars floats above the eagle’s head. A red, white, and blue American flag sits on the breast of the eagle, symbolizing independence. A gold ribbon is held in the eagle’s mouth with the words “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for “out of many, one.” This phrase is the American motto. The number thirteen is seen throughout the Seal, with thirteen stripes on the shield, thirteen stars, and thirteen arrows representing the original thirteen states.

You can find this Seal on the passport, U.S. one-dollar bill, and official government documents. The Seal is held by the Secretary of State and used about 3,000 times yearly. 

Great Seal of the United States

The Great Seal is a national symbol of the United States.

©grebeshkovmaxim/Shutterstock.com

Timeline of the American Flag

1775

The first flag that looks anything like the current U.S. flag started in 1775. It was called the Grand Union Flag and was 13 alternating stripes of red and white with the British Jack logo in the upper left corner. The Seal wasn’t formally¬†adopted¬†until June 20th, 1782.¬†

1776

On July 4th, 1776, the thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain, and the Continental Congress assigned a committee to design a national emblem for the country. This emblem later became known as the Great Seal of the United States.

1777

In July 1776, after the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress started discussing a new national flag. They eventually adopted a flag with the same 13 stripes and added a square of blue with 13 white stars to the upper left corner, representing the union on June 14, 1777. This date is celebrated each year in the United States as Flag Day.

1795

After the addition of Vermont and Kentucky into the union, a flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes was designed. There was a red stripe under the blue field in the upper left corner. 

The 20-star United States flag was used from July 4, 1818 to July 3, 1819.

©jacobolus / Public Domain – Original / License

1818

After the addition of Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi were added to the union. The flag now has 20 stars. The flag reverted back to the original 13 stripes in alternating white and red. The poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. It would become the national anthem of America in 1931.

1819

One more star was added for Illinois, bringing the total star count to 21.

1820

Alabama and Maine are added to the union. The flag now contains 23 stars and 13 stripes. 

1822

24 stars after the addition of Missouri.

1836

Arkansas is added to the union, bringing the total stars on the flag to 25.

1837

The flag has 26 stars now that Michigan has been added to the union.

1845

Florida joins the union for a total of 27 stars.

1846

Texas joins the union. The American flag now has 28 stars and 13 stripes. 

1847

With the addition of Iowa, we are at 29 stars.

1848

Wisconsin joins the union, and the flag gets another star. Now we are up to 30.

The 31-star U.S. flag was used from July 4, 1851-July of 1858.

©jacobolus / Public Domain – Original / License

1851

31 stars are on the flag now that California has joined the union. 

1858

After Minnesota joined the union, the flag had 32 stars. 

1859

Oregon joins the union. The flag now contains 33 stars.

1861

Kansas joins the union, and the flag now gets 34 stars. 

1863

West Virginia joins. Total star count 35. 

1865

With the addition of Nevada, we are now at 36 stars.

1867

The flag has 37 stars now that Nebraska has been added to the union. Americans added the first flag to a postage stamp in 1869.

1876

38 stars after the addition of Colorado.

1890

An American flag with 43 stars is adopted after adding North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Idaho. 

1891

44 stars after the addition of Wyoming. The Pledge of Allegiance was first published in a magazine in 1854.

1896

The addition of Utah brings the star count up to 45.

1908

Oklahoma joins the union and brings the stars on the flag up to 46. 

1912

New Mexico and Arizona are added. Total stars 48. This revision completes the lower 48 continental U.S.

1959

Alaska is added. The flag now has 49 stars.

1960

Hawaii brings the final count to 50 stars. 

2007

The 50-star flag is now used longer than any other version of the Flag of the United States. The 48-star version was in use for 47 years. 

Click here to learn about every single flag in the world!


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About the Author

Heather Hall is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on plants and animals. Heather has been writing and editing since 2012 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, Heather enjoys hiking, gardening, and trail running through the mountains with her dogs.

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