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More Than a Flag

Published: June 6, 2009

It was proclaimed by President Wilson in 1916. It became official with an Act of Congress in 1949. It is “observed” today at all federal facilities. But Flag Day is not a federal holiday, which is unfortunate.

June 14 is the date that the Continental Congress approved the new flag, which makes this the birthday of America’s most powerful symbol. The American flag is unlike those of other nations, just as our nation is unlike others. The flag stands for the invented nation of the United States, founded on a principal, not geography. It symbolizes our revolution, our ideals, our past actions, and our potential.

The reason we were taught to pledge allegiance to the flag as children was so we would stand by it as adults. We are held accountable for what our country does. Like it or not, the world has high expectations for Americans—expectations they don’t hold for, say, Finlanders or Luxembourgers.

If you’re among the 20 percent of living Americans who were born in the mid 1950s, you probably learned to pledge allegiance to a 48-star flag. The addition of Alaska in 1959 required the country to produce a new, 49-star flag. Then, in 1960, the star for Hawaii made these newer flags obsolete, as reported by a Post reporter:

“One more month and the proud new 50-star flags you see being sewn together by the busy Betsy Rosses … will become officially ensigns of the United States. It has been a hard two years on manufacturers such as the Dettra Flag Company of Oaks, Pennsylvania. After 47 years of an unchanging 48-star design, two newcomer states forced the rearrangement of the flag’s union, or starred blue field, twice within a year. On the double change-over, Dettra lost about $150,000 in canceled orders and unsalable inventory. The short-lived 49-star flag started the biggest boom the flag business had ever known. This boom collapsed utterly when Hawaii’s admission to the Union was voted by Congress in March, 1959. However, when the president announced on August 21 which 50-star design was to be used, the boom revived, and by the Fourth of July Dettra will have made 2,000,000 bright new banners—twice as many as it ever made before in a single year, and about 40 percent of the year’s total for the country.”

The flag made frequent appearances on the Post’s covers over the years, particularly during World War II. Yet, in the patriotic euphoria following the war’s end, Post editors grew concerned about—of all things—too many flags.

“The season for parades is on, everything from the carnival show to the Ancient and Ponderable Order of Chowder Marchers. Nobody is complaining about that because parades, particularly the bands, are a great treat to most people. Nevertheless, as the wife of a distinguished combat officer in Europe points out to us, most parades carry too many flags. Not only does this compel patriotic men and women to stand at attention more often than necessary, but it leads to disrespect for the flag, just as endless reproduction of a Worth gown would depreciate the value of the original. At an Army post review or parade, only one flag is carried, and the honor of being a part of the color guard is highly cherished. It does seem as if the annual parade of the Knights of the Full Gallon Convention Week could get along with what the Army considers adequate.

“Our major’s wife reports watching a parade in Boston in which ‘literally hundreds of flags’ were carried, with the result that men had to stand like ramrods most of the time or struggle to dispose of packages while removing their hats. The unfortunate part of it all is that the national emblem, which should have a special meaning now, receives no honor from this promiscuous use.

“No, we aren’t out to pass a law about it—only to urge on well-meaning chairmen of committees the point that the American flag is not a decoration or an excuse for a mass of color. It should be displayed with regard to its dignity and the appropriateness of its use.”

U.S. Service Flag

U.S. Service Flag

We would be remiss if we didn’t bring attention to another important flag hung in American households: the service flag. The Post ran a short article about it in 1942.

“The story begins in Cleveland, Ohio, at the home of Capt. Robert. L. Quiesser. Captain Quiesser had served on the Mexican border with the Fifth Ohio Infantry, from 1914 to 1916, been injured in an accident, and placed on the retired list of officers of the Ohio National Guard. ‘Shortly after April 6, 1917,’ he relates, ‘when war with Germany was declared, I wondered if I could not evolve some design by which it might be known that my two sons were away in their country’s service; one which, to their mother, would be a visible sign of the sacrifices her sons were making. And I wanted it to be a comfort, not only to my wife, but to all mothers whose sons or daughters were in the service.’ Captain Queisser went right to work. He designed a service flag which, by June, had been formally adopted by the city of Cleveland and was spreading rapidly over the country. In subsequent months, several resolutions were introduced in Congress to proclaim it an official flag of the Government. Although none were adopted, Brig. Gen. Nathan William MacChesney declared in May, 1918, that the service flag had taken such firm root in popular sentiment and has been of such beneficial influence that it is officially recognized, and everyone who is entitled to fly it is encouraged and urged to do so.

“When the present war began, numerous households hauled out their old World War I service flag; new ones began appearing on the market. This time Congress did act, passing a bill in October, 1942, which authorized the secretary of war to approve an official design and license manufacturers to make them.

“The present Government approved design is similar to Captain Queisser’s—a white rectangle with a red border, and a blue star for each person in the service. A smaller gold star is placed over the blue if the service man—or woman—is killed. No one had a record of how many service flags are flying today, but the total obviously runs in the millions.”

You will occasionally see a service flag still. The Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives help promote the use of these flags to show support to the spouses and children serving, and dying, in foreign lands. They also provide support to state-side families dealing with separation and loss. For more information, visit bluestarmothers.org and goldstarwives.org.

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The Face of America

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  • Jesuit

    While I have little use for unrestrained government, and its certain excesses, I love the principles upon which this country was founded. An education in, and restoration of, those precious precepts will resolve most of our present problems.
    Yet, I fear, no degree of freedom–no amount of prosperity–will satisfy a resentful leftist utopian like Frank.

  • Frank

    An invented nation founded on “principal” as in an executive officer (or inflated presidential power and submission to the rich and shameless) or as in capital with interest and due as debt?? And not on “geography?” Does this mean the states are meaningless entities and therefore no human could ever be illegal by crossing some imaginary boundary? Is this why we are denounced as “imperialist” when we invade and occupy other lands since we are not bound by geography? If we are held to higher expectations, then why are we offended when others want to hold us accountable for, say, torture, bombing indiscriminately and killing innocent civilians (and calling it “collateral damage”) It cannot be because we are “above the law” since being a lawful nation is one of the principles unless, of course, the laws are unjust such as the laws of segregation and the laws that protect privilege in a country based on freedom and equality.