Flag Day Details: What You Didn’t Know About Old Glory

Here's some fascinating history of the Stars and Stripes — and the appropriate etiquette for the beloved symbol of our freedoms

by Elizabeth M. Economou | Updated 14 Jun 2018 at 10:23 AM

Wedged between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July — which are celebrated with so much fanfare every year — Flag Day, on June 14, commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States. And it tends to hover just under the radar.

That doesn’t diminish its historical significance one bit.

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act (there were three laws in all), which aimed to define the design of the United States flag.

The Flag Act of 1777 was as brief as it was poetic.

It reads: “Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

George Washington, the fledgling nation's first president, was the only commander-in-chief to serve under this initial flag. Since then, with the expansion of the Union, Old Glory has undergone several iterations.

The Flag Act of 1794, for example, modified the design of the Stars and Stripes to reflect the admission of Vermont and Kentucky into the Union, with 15 stars and the same number of stripes. Incidentally, this was the only official flag to deviate from the 13 stripes.

More than two decades later, the Flag Act of 1818 established the protocol of having 13 stripes to represent the original 13 colonies, and set firm that future changes in the number of stars would be changed and acknowledged on Independence Day.

And although President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day back in 1946, today it is not considered an official federal holiday.

Flag Day was bypassed in the 1968 Uniform Holiday Act that established the 11 official federal holidays, including Inauguration Day every four years, and all three-day weekend holidays.

Perhaps the time has come for Congress to revisit that decision. Ongoing displays of disrespect and desecration toward our national anthem — "The Star-Spangled Banner" — and the American flag by some members of the National Football League and others turn symbols of freedom into targets of anger and discontent.

At the very least, it should be noted that federal law (Chapter 1 of Title 4 of the United States Code) establishes advisory rules for display and care of the American flag — though it is not enforced.

"The flag should never be used for advertising purposes."

Still, "it formalizes and unifies the traditional ways in which we give respect to the flag, and also contains specific instructions on how the flag is not to be used," reads the etiquette page on the website usflag.org.

Some rules of the U.S. flag code are especially worth mentioning.

"The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It is flown upside down only as a distress signal. Additionally, the flag should never be used for advertising purposes."

Also from the federal code: "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica should be worn on the left lapel near the heart."

Someone who always holds the flag close to his heart is retired Capt. Jason Haag, USMC, CEO and co-founder of Leashes of Valor, which pairs veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) with trained service dogs — which are provided at no cost to veterans.

"The colors of the United States flag signify historical meaning, which not many people know about," Haag told LifeZette.

Related: Here's the Perfect Movie for Flag Day, June 14

Invoking Charles Thompson, secretary of the Continental Congress, Haag said, "White signifies purity and innocence; red: hardiness and valor; and blue: the color of the chief, signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice."

"Every time I look at the colors of the flag, I'm reminded of these core values and how many of them exist in the heart of a veteran — and his service dog, too," added Haag.

Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.

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