Note: I could not resist updating and reposting this essay from an earlier year ’cause they just won’t stop talking about B.R.
Betsy Ross was fake news. I hate to puncture your patriotic bubble over this one, but her story was entirely made up. Alternative Facts.
When I first started researching “Flag Day,” I fully expected to write about the circle of stars and the bars of stripes and was upset to be reminded – that it’s not true. Curse that biography I read about her in the second grade… say it’s not so! Wikipedia has the details, or you can track down journal articles like this one on “Betsy Ross ‘Bit of Fiction’–The Flag'” in the The American Catholic Historical Researches, 6(4), 1910, which flatly states:
The New England Historical and Genealogical 1909… settles conclusively the Betsy Ross controversy claim to be legendary and without foundation, tradition based on tales from memory. Students and teachers should do all in their power to correct or eliminate, if possible, another bit of fiction United States.“Betsy Ross ‘Bit of Fiction’–The Flag'” in the The American Catholic Historical Researches, 6(4), 1910.
Vexillologists tell us not to be fooled by these decrepit fictions. Vexillologist should be our word for the day!
Ross, by the way, was an upholsterer who did sew, but the details of how she created the design in a response to a George Washington request in 1776 were made up by an enterprising descendant, William Canby, who wanted to hawk fake artifacts on the Internet. (Or the Internet version in 1870, which was the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.) Since her house is now treated as a historical site and a cottage industry has sprung up around her name, his ploy worked.
The Grand Union Flag & the British East India Company
Now I am going to blow your mind. The flag below was the first flag of the United States.
No kidding! This was referred to as the Grand Union Flag and adopted by Washington and troops during the first part of the Revolutionary War. Remember that one big purpose for the flag was to identify friendly vs. enemy troops on the battlefield and friendly vs. enemy vs. merchant ships on the ocean. The main purpose for using a “United States” flag was to coordinate the troops who came from multiple states and regions with their own different-looking flags.
Notice how it still looks *erm* British. Vexillologist Fawcett explains it this way:
Though hostilities began in 1775, it is indisputable that Washington and other leaders of the revolt were still in hopes of a reconciliation with the Mother-country, and the war was regarded as one against the unlawful acts of the King’s Ministry rather than one involving disloyalty to the King. Otherwise it is absurd to suppose that a flag with the Union Jack on it would ever have been adopted.
— The STRIPED FLAG of the EAST INDIA COMPANY, and its CONNEXION with the AMERICAN “STARS and STRIPES” by Sir Charles Fawcett
We’re not done with the mind blowing yet. Here, also, is the flag of the British East India Company.
Yes, indeedy. The original flag of the United States of America was modeled after a corporate banner. Perhaps on purpose. Supposedly, the Founding Fathers liked the independence that the BEIC displayed in being of, but not entirely ruled by, Great Britain. The Company even had its own army; it was as much the British East India Company rather than the Crown that colonized India.
The Stars and Bars
The British Union Jack portion of the American flag wasn’t replaced by stars until Congress adopted a new resolution on June 14, 1777, asking for a flag to show stars and stripes. The 13 stars and bars were intended to reflect the 13 colonies, although please notice that the original East India flag also had 13 stripes. I dug around (for a whole two hours) and as far as I can determine, the thirteen stripes were originally a convenience of cloth size and using an odd number so that the red bottom and top stripes were plainly visible.
In 1795, two stripes and two stars were both added to the flag to reflect two new states. Finally, in 1818, Congress decided to continue adding stars for growing numbers of states but to fix the stripes at 13. Before that happened though, it was this 15 star, 15 stripe flag at Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem.
Are we finding these a little disorienting? I don’t even want to show you the example of the first Confederate flag, the one actually flown on the battle field on behalf of the South. But I have to:
Doesn’t that mess you up? (Hint: See Betsy Ross). There’s also an early version of the Confederate Army flag called the Stainless Banner that was mostly white because…well, you can read about William Tappan Thompson and his ideas about race.
“Ancient” Origins of the Rainbow Flag
Flags have a practical function for the military but are also highly symbolic. They represent the ideals of the people who fly them and are heavily used in both parades and marches. So it was, that the first LGBTQA Pride Parade in San Francisco on June 25, 1978 flew the Rainbow Flag:
This flag also had a venerable history before its official adoption by the Pride Movement. I will do the Wikipedia walking for you. Way back in the 16th century, the flag was associated with social revolutionary Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasant’s War. The flag and the peasants’ boot (“Bundschuh”) were used to represent a new era for social change. As biblical scholars know, the rainbow was referenced in Genesis as a promise from the Old Testament God not to have another Flood. A good kind of social change: let’s not wipe out all of humanity again!
Other groups adopted the rainbow both for its promise of change and the obvious representation of many colors. Sri Lanka, first in 1885, then later the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950, adopted a version to represent all forms of Buddhism worldwide. Armenia used a version of the rainbow colors when it gained independence after world War I. There are a half dozen more references – particularly the peace movement in the 1960s – and that may be where Gilbert Baker drew his inspiration.
Gilbert Baker and Sewing for Over a Mile
As the Baker story goes, Gilbert was a friend of Harvey Milk’s in the late 1970s. Milk challenged Baker, another openly gay activist, to come up with an emblem for the gay community that could be flown with pride. The original version, shown above, had eight colors including hot pink and turquoise! (Don’t we miss the pink and turquoise?)
In that 1978 Pride parade, thirty volunteers hand-dyed and hand stitched the flags. Baker’s inspiration was probably a mix: the Peace movement as well as the link back to Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” a kind of musical symbol that hearkened back to the Stonewall riots, which the parade was designed to commemorate. Certainly, the overall notion of diversity and embracing different people, different ideas, different families is at the heart of the celebration of many colors.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 1994, Baker created the world’s longest rainbow flag which was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. Another version was created in 2003 to celebrate the anniversary of the flag itself, which stretched a mile and a quarter long.
Even since this post was created in 2017, the flag has been updated to support the trans community and highlight the marginalized POC community, so I would be remiss if I did not include this one as well and highlight this excellent article on the topic:
The LGBTQA is under attack, as we know, with many demanding that people go back to pretending we don’t exist. People have not liked the community using the rainbow, especially given its purported origin in a religious book. Others detest the symbol being used by advertisers to sell products. The original notion for the community was, after all, a rejection of the norm, a norm that required you to live in a certain type of house with a certain type of mate and eat a certain type of food, all furnished by capitalism.
Strangely enough, some of the same arguments have been made about the American flag, with a backlash a few decades back about having the flag debased by putting it on pant bottoms or napkins. Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a flag shirt.
Time to Fly those Flags!
Yet, we are a capitalist culture and slapping pride symbols or USA flags on purses, tank tops, short pants, socks, beer, or rings is as American as apple pie and the Dykes on Bikes. If a bank flies the rainbow flag as a show of support, I’m fine with it if it means they won’t deny me and my unmarried partner a loan. If the city lines the streets with flags during June, I don’t consider it selling out, if it also means they’ll facilitate same sex partner adoption and direct their police force to keep me safe instead of arresting me. I’ve always found a special irony in the Pride community’s attempt to enforce “appropriate” LGBTQA behavior — thou shalt not be lesbian and live in the suburbs.
I do know that I am excited to see people put the stars and stripes outside their house on July 4th. I can’t wait to watch 1776 every year to celebrate the lone voice of obnoxious John Adams who insisted on debating the need for independence until he compelled a coalition of congressmen to agree with him. Talk about social change! And I am excited on June 1st when San Francisco puts up the rainbows along Market Street because it’s that time again–especially after all we’ve been through.
This country was founded on the principles of freedom and the hope of embracing many cultures, religions, and ideas. Freedom and hope are a lot to celebrate.
Thomas Paine, writer of pamphlets arguing on behalf of democracy during the Revolution, also proposed using a rainbow flag to represent neutral ships in time of war. Maybe if Betsy and Tom had really put their heads together, they would have come up with the stars and rainbow version, the un-Stainless Banner, to celebrated hope, freedom, and diversity from the very beginning: