Flag Day goes by with very little fanfare or observance, compared to Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Surprising, isn’t it? So many people have affection for our flag, and Flag Day, Thursday, commemorates the day the Flag Act of 1777 established the first official American flag.
Followers of flag history will appreciate the display at the Tampa Bay History Center. "American Flags: The Star & Stripes in American History & Culture" is a fascinating look at the evolution of the American flag through the collection of Dr. Peter Keim, a retired physician.
The American flag is not only the most displayed flag in the world, it has been changed more than any other flag. Its design has remained exactly the same since 1960, but there were many iterations along the way. The exhibition reveals a surprising history of the flag’s journey to become a powerful national symbol.
The collection began with a 13-star flag Keim discovered at a farm sale in Pennsylvania in 1974. Though he had served in the Army, he hadn’t set out to collect American flags. But finding this historic flag and uncovering its provenance hooked him, and he began collecting as many American flags as he could. He has amassed about 700 flags, including extremely rare examples. His collection has been recognized as the most comprehensive one in the country.
As Keim’s collection grew, so did his knowledge about the history of the flag, and in 2007, he published a book, A Grand Old Flag: A History of the United States Through Its Flags. He exhibits his flags in museums around the country. This exhibit is the first in Florida.
Keim’s first 13-star flag hangs in his home in Pittsburgh. But another, circa 1790, is on display in the exhibition, as tattered and faded as one would imagine. Its design was considered an act of rebellion; the red and white stripes that symbolized the 13 colonies could also be read as an in-your-face affront to Great Britain. It’s also an early version of the Grand Luminary Pattern, in which the 13 stars are arranged into a single star, symbolizing the new nation.
On the 14-star flag, c. 1791, 13 stars encircle a single star, representing Vermont entering the union. This nongovernment-sanctioned flag is very rare.
In 1794, the second Flag Act was signed into law, amending the original stipulation to 15 stripes and 15 stars, thanks to Vermont and Kentucky. This version of the flag flew at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner.
Prior to this event, the American flag wasn’t such a big deal to the public. But once people heard the lyrics, "our flag was still there," fervor for the banner grew rapidly, and it became the symbol of the nation.
In 1818, the third Flag Act was enacted in Congress, reverting back to 13 stripes to reflect the original colonies, the number of stars now reflecting the number of states in the union. A new star, or state, couldn’t be added until July 4, 1820. This meant when Alabama became the 22nd state in 1819, no official 22-star American flag was made.
That’s why the 22-star flag in Keim’s collection is so rare. The unknown sewer of this homemade "folk" flag, c. 1820, got it all wrong: The stripes are gray and white; the canton, or field where the stars go, has been moved to the right side and is white; the stars are red and a hand-stitched eagle has been plopped smack in the middle of the stripes.
Flags weren’t really manufactured on a large scale until around 1847, so most flags were sewn by someone at home. Many folks had no concept that the flag should have a particular design. The Flag Act only loosely defined the look of the flag, with no stipulation for the arrangement of the stars, or even the placement of the canton. It wasn’t until 1912 that these details were made official, so the exhibition is rife with flags in which the stars are positioned a number of ways.
During this freestyle flag design period, different political groups began using the flag to bolster their platform, a tradition that carries on today. The exhibit has two striking, early examples of this practice.
The Know Nothing flag, c. 1849, places a portrait of George Washington in the canton. The Know Nothing party was the nickname for an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant political party called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner that formed in 1849. These American-born Protestants became frustrated and struck with paranoia about the wave of immigrants flooding the country. They chose American-born Washington as their symbol.
The Free Soil Party, a short-lived political party active between 1848 and 1852, was in opposition to the expansion of slavery in Western territories. In its flag, c. 1848, the 35 stars are arranged to spell the word "free."
On the 39-star flag, c. 1876, the American flag is bordered by flags from around the world. This was done intentionally by organizers of a World’s Fair exhibition for the Centennial. The exhibition was planned to demonstrate that we were poised to become a global force in art, commerce and agriculture. This flag, sold as a souvenir at the fair, used this symbolism to place our fledgling nation on the world’s stage.
History buffs will particularly enjoy seeing a 33-star flag flown by Union troops during the Civil War at the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. There’s also a 30-star flag likely carried at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. It is believed to be a family heirloom of a soldier, created in 1847. It was common for soldiers to bring their own family flags.
For art lovers, there’s a monochromatic White Flag lithograph from 1960 by Jasper Johns, whose 1954-55 painting of the American flag was considered groundbreaking, catapulting him to the forefront of the art world and cementing his position in art history.
Andy Warhol’s Moonwalk is on display, a colorful pop interpretation of the "visor moment" that Neil Armstrong captured of Buzz Aldrin standing next to the American flag on their historic moon walk. It’s cleverly placed by a copy of the original photograph.
The American flag can be a loaded symbol. While it stands for freedom, that includes the right to protest, and curators keenly included the album jackets for Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Outkast’s Stankonia.
Springsteen’s stance facing a larger-than-life flag looks, on the surface, to be the epitome of patriotism, but the lyrics of the title song are from the viewpoint of a disillusioned soldier returning from the Vietnam War. The stark black and white American flag that hangs behind Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast suggests a separate America, one not experienced by the masses.
Keim sees the flag as a dynamic symbol.
"It’s the fabric of our nation," he said. "All our history is in it, and it is strength and resolve and all of the things that it stands for in the way of freedom and ‘welcome to our country’. That’s what the flag means to me."
Contact Maggie Duffy at firstname.lastname@example.org.