The American flag has remained unchanged since July 4, 1960 when a fiftieth star was added to the canton representing the newly formed state of Hawaii. This familiar fifty star design is the longest serving arrangement of the American flag, a record previously held by the forty-eight star design that was used for forty-seven years from 1912-1959. Before 1912, there were surprisingly few regulations on the design and specifications of the American flag. The Flag Act of 1777 established the familiar design of the flag; thirteen alternating red and white stripes with a blue canton containing thirteen white stars. With the addition of the first two new states, Vermont and Kentucky, the Flag Act of 1794 continued the logic of the first act and created a flag of fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. Finally, the Flag Act of 1818 went back to thirteen stripes, which was made permanent, and added five more stars for a total of twenty. There was also a provision for adding a new star for each subsequent state admitted to the Union. This act remains the foundation for the appearance of the American flag and its terms oversaw the addition of thirty more states and their stars.
These acts do not specify the size, proportions, or canton arrangements of the American flag. This omission helps to explain a 1907 survey of government agencies that found flags of sixty-six different sizes and varying proportions. The stars in the canton also lacked an official arrangement. The linear layout to which we are accustomed was most common. However, a variety of designs, particularly concentric circles, could also be seen and were valid, as long as there were an appropriate number of stars. Into this confusion stepped President Taft, who took the opportunity of new statehood, and new stars, for New Mexico and Arizona, to standardize the flag.
The expectation of a new flag drew considerable public interest and many groups held design contests for the upcoming forty-eight star flag. A notable design was from Wayne Whipple of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Whipple’s design, which he called the Peace Flag, featured a symbolic arrangement of the canton’s stars. Thirteen stars, for the first thirteen states, were arranged in the middle of the canton in the shape of a six sided star; twenty five stars, representing the states that entered the union during the nation’s first century, circled that star; and ten stars, for the states that were admitted after 1876, were arranged in an outer circle. Whipple wanted his flag to be accepted as the official forty-eight star flag and the design attracted significant attention. President Taft even recommended Whipple’s design to the War and Navy Departments. However, a War Department panel decided on a more conventional design with the stars arranged in six horizontal rows of eight stars with one point of each star facing upward. President Taft followed the panel’s recommendation and, through two executive orders, standardized the configuration and proportions of the American flag.
Letter from Wayne Whipple to Joseph M. Dixon, June 13, 1912. From the Library of Congress Manuscript division.
Whipple, clearly a zealous vexillographer, also offered his Peace Flag to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 presidential campaign. In a letter to Senator Joseph M. Dixon, who was serving as Roosevelt’s campaign manager, Whipple dedicated his flag “to Roosevelt without reserve on behalf of the patriotic people of my country.” He describes the flag as “full of history and authority” and hoped that after Roosevelt’s election the flag would be officially adopted by the country. We have not located any evidence that the Roosevelt campaign took advantage of Whipple’s offer.
Leepson, Marc. Flag: An American Biography. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2005. Print.
Eggenberger, David. Flags of the U.S.A. New York: Crowell, 1964. Print.