Spotlight On…   The Flag

Jasper Johns, "Three Flags," Whitney Museum of Art, New York

Since September 11th, Americans have shown a renewed interest in our flag. The flag assumes special importance on our national holidays, such as Memorial Day, Flag Day, and the 4th of July.

Flag Protocol

Protocol for displaying the flag is mandated by Public Law 94-344 and published in Title 4 of the U.S. Code. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides Guidelines for Display of the Flag.

NASA photo AS11-40-5875 - the US flag on the moon

Flag History

A full history of the evolution of the American flag is not known. The flag was officially adopted by Congress on July 14th, 1777, when Congress passed the Flag Act. The first flag was most likely designed by Francis Hopkinson and was probably not sewn by Betsy Ross. While the flag has kept its basic design over time, additional stars and stripes have been added as states joined the union. Special flags have also been designed for use during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and each state in the union has designed and adopted its own state flag.

The original "Star-Spangled Banner" that inspired the national anthem is currently undergoing an extensive preservation project at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The online exhibit explains the origin of Francis Scott Key's anthem and the reason that the original flag is in such ragged and damaged condition.

More recent flag history includes the political and technical aspects of placing a flag on the moon Apollo 11 had to face the challenge of flying a flag with no atmosphere or wind and there were debates over whether the flag represented territorial rights over the moon. The same questions may arise again as NASA considers a manned flight to Mars.

About the Fringe on the Flag and Other Questions

Why do some American flags have fringe? This question has sparked a number of urban legends, including the contention that a fringed flag means a court has no jurisdiction or that only the military may fly a flag with fringe. Untrue. The Congressional Research Service has posted online answers to this and other frequently asked flag questions. In addition, the government has published articles on the fringe myth and many other allegations by illegal tax protestors.

Purchasing a Flag that Has Flown Over the Capitol

You can purchase a U.S. flag that has flown over the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Your request can specify a date - for example, a birthday or anniversary - that the flag be flown. For more information on the size, cost, and delivery of the flag, consult the homepage of your U.S. Senator or U.S. Representative and click on the 'Constituent Services' link.

Jasper Johns, "Flag," The Museum of Modern Art, New York

More Information

The Information and Reference Department has many official government publications on the flag, including

  • Freedom's Flag: The History of Old Glory.
    D 101.35: F 59
  • The American Flag: Everything a Patriotic American Should Know about Our Country's Flag.
    D 12.2: F 59

For additional materials about the flag, search the Library Catalog using the subject heading:
Flags - United States.