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History of the Stars and Stripes (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-01-10 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | stars and stripes | stars | stripes | points on stars |
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Number of points on the stars

Six, seven, eight pointed stars were nearly as common as five pointed stars prior to the end of the 18th century. The number of points on the stars was never specified by Congress.
Dave Martucci, 8 January 1998

George Washington's HQ flag of blue had six pointed stars on it.

Is it correct then to assume that the 5 pointed star came about in U.S. flag history as another way to separate the country from Europe with their more numerous pointed stars?

It is also interesting to note that some Confederate flags of the Civil War had six pointed - and some even more - stars on them. The flag makers seemed to do so as a proper nod to heraldry.
Greg Biggs, 8 January 1998


Arrangements of the stars

The 1973 book The Stars and the Stripes by Mastai [mas73] illustrates many of the variations in star patterns of U.S. flags that were made during the 19th century (circles, rows, great stars, etc). There was no law specifying the arrangement of stars until 1912.
Nick Artimovich, 19 March 1996

As others have said, the pattern of stars was not established until 1912. The military services, however, did indeed establish regular patterns as early as 1818, but these were not binding on the public. Stars in rows were, of course, a very common design for commercially manufactured flags as it was simple to produce. Until the 1870s and '80s, the stars were sewn on (or "in") by hand, even if the stripes were machine sewn. It was not unusual to see home made flags, even mass produced flags, with the stars arranged in patterns such as these:

  1. all stars in two concentric circles or ovals
  2. most stars in concentric circles or ovals with a few stars inside or outside of these circles,
  3. all stars in a box with a space or two in the center for more
  4. stars arranged to form one large five-pointed star
  5. stars arranged in a "diamond" shape
  6. stars arranged like a flower ( just a really rounded star)
  7. any of the above arrangements with one much larger central star
  8. "brackets" or "parentheses" of stars at either side of the canton with the remaining stars arranged in between.
  9. seme, or no pattern at all!
The imagination of American flag makers was not limited to the above list, but those are the ones I own or recall seeing.
Nick Artimovich, 13 February 1996

Prior to 1912 there was no single "official" pattern. In the period after 1865, it appears that often the Army would have one or more approved patterns. Usually the Navy would have one approved pattern, but not necessarily the same as any used by the army. The civilian wing of the government appears to have had no authorized pattern, and flag manufacturers were free to use their imaginations. Often flags made for private or non-military government use would arrange stars in a military or naval pattern, but it seems that just as often they developed other patterns.

I am finding, it seems, that the star patterns shown on the flags on FOTW are often those used by the US Navy. For example, the 38 star flag, 43 star flag and 45 star flag all match the Navy versions of those flags. With the 45 star flag it appears that the Army and the Navy agreed on the pattern, and every original 45 star flag I have seen, whether of civil or military provenance, matched that pattern. I have not yet found what the authorized Army version for the 43 star flag was.

The the 38 star flag is an interesting study. In that case, there were 3 different authorized star patterns, one for Garrison flags, one for Post flags, and a third for Storm and Recruiting flags.
Devereaux Cannon, 1 December 2001


Stripes specified

As for the U.S. Flag, it was not really settled officially until 1916 that there would be more red stripes than white ones, and that official act is only binding on the Executive Department and the Military. There are plenty of examples of more white stripes than red ones on old U.S. Flags, although tradition had established the red dominance of the stripes by the mid 19th century.
Dave Martucci, 18 February 2000


Legal aspects

All versions of the U.S. flags ever used are still legal, as new versions have been authorized, but old versions have never been unauthorized.
William M. Grimes-Wyatt, 21 February 1996

According to President Dwight Eisenhower's Executive Order (#10834, published 25 August, 1959) the 50-Star flag would become the "official flag of the United States on July 4, 1960." The Order also states "All national flags...now in possession of executive agencies...shall be utilized until unserviceable."

Earlier, the White House had issued the following statement to the public:

"By law, the new 50-star flag will become the official flag of the United States on July 4, 1960, the birthday of the Union. Display of the new flags before that time would be improper. However, it would not be improper to display the 48-star and the 49-star flag after that date; with limited exceptions agencies of the Federal Government will continue to display the 48-star and the 49-star flag so long as they remain in good condition and until existing stocks of unused flags are exhausted. It is appropriate for all citizens to do the same." (21 August 1959)

The answer seems to be that only 50-star flags are "official" but it is appropriate to display earlier examples. A publication sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America states

"Historic U.S. flags are due the same honor and respect that are given today's colors. When a historic flag is carried or displayed with a present-day flag, the modern flag takes precedence."
These do not appear in the Flag Code nor the Executive Orders covering the flag, but they make sense.

Nick Artimovich, 21 February 1996


Miscellaneous star arrangements

Throughout the pages linked from this page are displayed a selection of depictions of US flags with varying numbers of stars and stripes. The stars in particular are highly variable in their arrangement, and flags with different star arrangements commonly come on the market in online trading sites like ebay. We have attempted to collect many of these - far more than can be shown here. If you have a scholastic interest in such flags, contact the FOTW director for access to these images - many are accompanied by descriptions (often of uncertain reliability!)