The American Flag- “Old Glory” and other interesting facts

by Don Allen

Being an American, the American flag’s story has been almost a birthright, taught since I was very young in school. Betsy Ross sewing the first flag for George Washington. 13 red and white alternating stripes (7 red, 6 white) symbolizing the original 13 colonies, two of which, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, I call home. 50 five-pointed stars representing the 50 states with a new star added everytime a state joined the Union to the blue canton (or rectangle in the upper left area of the flag). Every day in class reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while looking at the flag, hand over heart.


Current flag: 50 stars, created in 1960 after the addition of Hawaii as a state, with 13 stripes (7 red, 6 white)


But as is often the case the “story” of something can deviate from the historical facts. The Betsy Ross story of meeting George Washington and helping him design, and then sewing, the first flag, with the stars in a circle? All but certainly a myth created much later. Most historians name Francis Hopkinson, also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as designing the first flag, with the 6-pointed stars in rows, rather than the 5-pointed stars of the “Betsy Ross” flag that are still used today.


The flag that inspired the national anthem of America, “The Star-Spangled Banner”? 15 stars with 15 stripes (8 red, 7 white) to represent the two states of Vermont and Kentucky which had been admitted into the Union in 1795. The 15/15 flag would remain until 1818, by which point there were 20 states. Congress, after nearly two years of debating the issue (begun in 1816), finally passed the Flag Act of 1818, signed into law by President James Monroe, which permanently set the stripes at 13 (7 red, 6 white) to honor the 13 original states, and mandated that on the July 4th following the official admission of a new state, a new star would be added. So for example even though Hawaii became a state in August of 1959, its star wasn’t officially added until July 4th, 1960.


The “Star-Spangled Banner”, note the 15 stripes (8 red, 7 white) representing Vermont and Kentucky


And very recently I realized that I didn’t know the story behind the nickname “Old Glory”. Where had it come from? Who had named it that and when? Working in a library dedicated to America, I did the most sensible thing and looked for a book. And I found a couple of good ones on the history of the flag right here in the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library. The first one is a fascinating pictorial history called Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag by Kit Hinrichs and Delphine Hirasuna with photography by Terry Heffernan (available here).

long may she wave


The great thing about this book is that it isn’t just a history of the actual flag, although it does give that, but it also has different representations of the flag as well. For example, in the chapter “The Flag In Celebration” it has a fanstastic picture, taken in 1917 at the United States Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, of 10,000 cadets forming a “living” flag. It’s a black-and-white picture, but it is still absolutely amazing.


10,000 cadets forming a “living” flag at the United States Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, circa 1917


One of the best sections of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter “The Flag in Politics and Protest” which has representations of the flag that are not always American positive. One such example is this strikingly powerful “Indian Power” image created in 1975, which according to the caption,

“Designer and Graphis magazine publisher B. Martin Pedersen boldly illustrates the diminishing power of the American Indian over the centuries in this limited edition print”.



I didn’t find any information on where the name “Old Glory” came from in that book, so I kept looking and found Flag: An American Biography by Marc Leepson (available here).



This book is fascinating. The first chapter gives a brief history of flags, along with the story, throughout North American history, beginning with a brief blurb about the standards that the Vikings may have brought with them when they reached Newfoundland in the 10th and 11th centuries. It goes through the British and French flags during the colonial era, and the famous “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. Chapter Two begins with the “Continental Colors” (aka “Grand Union Flag”), used from late 1775 until 1777 and then it’s off to the races, tracing the evolving history of the American flag.


The “Continental Colors”/”Grand Union Flag”, the first national flag of the fledgling United States. Notice the “Union Flag” canton. It doesn’t contain the Irish red saltire (x-shaped cross), as Ireland wouldn’t join with Britain for another 26 years.

I finally found where the term “Old Glory” came from on pages 116-118. Whaling captain William Driver, from Salem, Massachusetts, was given a 24-star flag sown by his mother for his 21st birthday, the same year he became captain of his own ship, the Charles Dogget, in 1824. According to Leepson, Driver was moved to call it “Old Glory” the first time he hoisted it on his ship. He retired from whaling in 1837 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee after the death of his first wife. He would fly it three times every year (it was too large to fly regularly, being a massive 10 feet x 17 feet): George Washington’s Birthday (February 22nd); St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th, which was also his birthday); and the 4th of July. In 1860, his wife and daughters removed the old stars, sewing on 34 new ones to bring it up to date. Driver himself sewed on a small white anchor in the lower right corner of the blue canton.

Fast forward a year and America is embroiled in the Civil War. Driver, although living in the south in a Confederate state, was a staunch Unionist, and refused at least twice to hand over the flag to Confederate soldiers, eventually hiding it inside a quilt. When Union forces occupied Nashville in 1862, Driver, according to Leepson,

“celebrated that event by liberating Old Glory from inside the quilt, taking it with an escort of troops from the Sixth Ohio Regiment to the Tennessee State Capitol building and hoisting it from the Capitol’s dome…[this] event also popularized the name ‘Old Glory’ as a nickname for the American Flag”.

Driver gave the flag to his daughter, Mary, in 1873 (he died in 1886) who held onto it until 1922, when she donated the flag to President Warren G. Harding, who gave it to the Smithsonian where it still resides.


Original “Old Glory” owned by Driver. Notice the white anchor in the lower right corner of the blue canton. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History



Do you know any other interesting facts about “Old Glory”? Let us know in the comments below!




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