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Broad Stripes and Bright Stars: notes on the anniversary of America’s anthem

American flag

On September 13th, 1814, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key dined as a guest on a British warship, where he had been sent to negotiate the release of American prisoners. The ship, the H.M.S. Tonnant, was moored in Chesapeake Bay, off Baltimore, which the British forces intended to attack later that day. Key was detained aboard the Tonnant, for fear that he would reveal the British plans and the disposition of their forces, and could only watch in horror as the British bombarded Fort McHenry, the fort which guarded the entrance to Baltimore’s harbour. The bombardment did relatively little damage to the fort, however, and at dawn on September 14th, Key saw that the American flag was still flying over the fort. After his release later that day, Key wrote a poem, Defence of Fort M’ Henry, to the tune of a British drinking song. You can probably guess the opening lines: “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light | What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming”. The poem was first published as a broadside later in 1814, and after more than a century of general use, and a name change to The Star-spangled Banner, Key’s lyrics were adopted as the official national anthem of the United States in 1931.

When you Wish upon a Star

The flag that inspired Key’s poetic muse had been made by Mary Pickersgill, a professional flag-maker and Baltimore resident. She was commissioned to make a flag 42 feet long by 32 feet wide: large enough that the British forces could clearly see it from a distance. It took six weeks to make, with Pickersgill and her helpers hand-sewing every star and stripe. The basic design of the United States flag had been approved by the Continental Congress in 1777. It was known as the Stars and Stripes, a name which was in use at least as early as 1782, and soon gained an emblematic significance as a symbol of the nation, as when a debate in Congress included a discussion of “the exhortation against enlistments, against joining the stars and stripes of their country”. During the Civil War, the Confederate states adopted their own version of the flag, the Stars and Bars, which featured three wide stripes and a blue quarter with stars. On both flags, the number of stars changed according to the number of states that were members of the Confederacy, or of the United States (the latter now has fifty stars, one for each of the fifty states that make up the USA). Star-spangled banner as a name for the flag may well have been coined by Key, and despite appearing somewhat later than Stars and Stripes, it became a tremendously popular name and is still in use. Another popular alternative is Old Glory, a name which the Oxford English Dictionary’s evidence first dates to the year 1862. A rather less well-known name is gridiron, referring to the grid-like pattern of stripes; an 1871 text describes sailors seeing the flag hoisted and exclaiming “There goes the gridiron.” (Gridiron is now also used for that other icon of American culture: the football field, with its pattern of parallel lines.)

The earliest, unofficial, forms of the American flag shared only the stripes with the modern version. The American Revolution was underway when the first unofficial national flag was raised in late 1775 or early 1776. This flag had the thirteen red and white stripes but, in the top corner nearest the flagpole (known as the canton) it featured the Union Flag of Great Britain. (This early American flag was itself referred to at the time as the Union Flag: the Pennsylvania Evening Post of 28th May 1776 reported that “the Union Flag of the American States waved upon the Capitol.”) The British flag was, at that time, formed of the red cross of St. George, symbolizing England, and the white saltire (diagonal cross) of St. Andrew on a blue background, symbolizing Scotland. The red saltire of St. Patrick was added in 1801, at the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. (There is nothing in the Union Flag to symbolize Wales, despite its being an equal member of the United Kingdom.) The term Union Flag goes back to at least 1636, when it was decreed that no privateers should fly the flag: “None shall from henceforth presume to carry the Union Flag in the main Top or other part of their Ships, that is Saint George his Cross and Saint Andrews Cross joined together,..but that the same Union Flag be still reserved as an Ornament proper for our own Ships, and Ships in our immediate Service and Pay, and none other.”

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The British flag is popularly called The Union Jack. A jack is a specific type of flag used by ships at sea as a signal, and often refers specifically to a small flag flown at the bow of the vessel to indicate the ship’s nationality. The origin of the word is obscure, though there are numerous compounds where the first element “jack” is used with a diminutive meaning, indicating that the thing described is smaller than usual: a jack-timber is shorter than the full length, while a jack-arch is an arch only one brick thick. Since the jack is a small flag, this may indicate the source of its name. The pirate flag, more commonly known as the Skull and Crossbones after its motif, is also sometimes referred to as the Black Jack. Strangely enough, this grisly flag is also referred to as the Jolly Roger, another name of obscure origin. Some have suggested that it is a corruption of the French “joli rouge” (“pretty red”), but since the pirate flag was always black, and there is no similar phrase attested in French for such a flag, this seems very unlikely. A more likely, but nonetheless unverifiable, theory is that “jolly” refers to the grinning aspect of the skull, and “Roger” is a reference to the devil, who is popularly referred to as “Old Roger”. A naval flag with a rather more legitimate claim to jollity is the Blue Peter, a blue flag with a white square in the centre; it is hoisted when the vessel is all ship-shape and ready to sail. For generations of British children, it was also the name of a beloved television programme, known for its lively and engaging content. Far more jolly than an old skull.

Over the Rainbow

We’ve considered the names and origins of a number of flags here, but what of the word flag itself? After all we’ve read so far, you may not be surprised to learn that it is, yes, of somewhat obscure origin. A form of the word is found in all the modern Germanic languages, and one theory is that it is an onomatopoeic formation, like flap, referring to the noise the flag makes when it flutters in the wind. But wherever it comes from, the flag has served as a symbol for many things: the white flag indicates surrender, while the red flag is a sign of danger (never show one to a bull); the blue flag tells us that a beach is clean, whereas a yellow flag on a ship indicated that it was carrying infectious disease; the black flag represents death and mourning, deadly intention, and anarchy; and the rainbow flag is now most commonly a symbol of LGBT pride and of international peace. The very earliest references to a rainbow flag, though, were to the flag of the United States of America. As the American poet George P. Morris wrote in 1838: “Hail with pride and loud hurrahs, Streaming from a thousand spars, Freedom’s rainbow-flag of stars! Symbol of our land!” And so we end where we began, with a celebration of the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, the Star-spangled Banner, and the writing of the national anthem of a new nation.