Fixing the shape of the Stars and Stripes

The flag of the United States of America is so instantly recognisable and ubiquitous that it is hard to believe its design was only formalised in 1912. On the 24th June 1912, President Taft signed Executive Order 1556 stipulating the correct proportions of the flag and specifying the proper arrangement and orientation of the stars.

Until then, the basic design was well known – there were always thirteen horizontal stripes alternating in red and white and a blue canton featuring as many white, five-pointed stars as there were states. But within these parameters there remained a great deal of flexibility in how Old Glory was designed, a flexibility that was used to political effect both during and after the American Civil War.

In the north, anger at the southern cessationists manifested itself in flags with a ‘southern-exclusionary star count’. At a strike, the 14 rebellious states are removed from the banner, suggesting that their actions had forever removed them from the bounds of union and amity with the others.

At the other side of the country, southern pride and defiance was marked in flags that buried the Confederate Flag’s diagonal cross of stars amidst the other stars in the blue canton.

These, and other flag designs, were highlighted in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent Art of America, repeats of which can be seen on BBC Four.