Civic Center, 2 Park Street
Potsdam, NY 13676
(315) 265-6910

Old Glory - flag exhibit

OLD GLORY: Flags from the Museum Collection

MAY through October 2007

The Origin of the Flag

Flags were first used as symbols of military leaders and rulers, such as kings.  When warfare tactics changed and large armies fought on expansive battlefields, solid objects placed at the top of large poles, called standards,  were used to identify military leaders during battle.  Scholars believe that the Roman Cavalry’s use of standards led to the creation of small sails, or “vexillum,” that were attached to the solid objects and used as identifiers of army leaders, rallying points for the soldiers, and signals for change in direction.  It was not until the  late Middle Ages that flags were used to represent states and nations.  In Italy independent city states developed a use for flags as symbols of their states, as they had no individual ruler or king .

It is common for nations to design their flags by incorporating elements of their mother country’s national flag.  Australia, Fiji, and the state of Hawaii have fused Britain’s Union Flag into their state and national flags.  When George Washington raised the first American flag in 1776 the Union Jack was placed in the field  where the fifty stars are now located.  Britain’s Union Flag itself is a combination of Scotland’s Cross of St. Andrew, England’s Cross of St. George, and Ireland’s Cross of St. Patrick as adopted in 1801.  Just as Great Britain designed its flag to represent all regions of its nation, the United States has altered Old Glory to mirror the addition of every new state from Delaware to Hawaii.                                                           
Symbolism of the United States Flag
Although many Americans, including George Washington, have associated the colors of the flag with various meanings and symbolism, historians have been unable to cite a specific official statement that declares the meaning of red, white, and blue.  In a book published in 1977 the United States Congress established that Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress had stated upon the creation of the United States Seal, “The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valor, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”  It is possible that people have taken these meanings and attached them to the colors of the flag. 
In addition to representing the thirteen original colonies and the fifty states, the stars and stripes were declared by the House of Representatives to represent the heavens and United States goals and the rays of the sun.  George Washington held a similar interpretation of the colors and design of the flag.  He is believed to have said, “We take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing Liberty.”
For the majority of the American flag’s existence there have been seven red stripes and six white stripes as established by Congress on June 14, 1777.  In 1794, after the addition of Kentucky and Vermont, two additional stripes and stars were added to the flag.  The American flag remained this way for twenty-three years.  This included the creation of the Star Spangled Banner, a fifteen star and stripe flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill in 1795.  Although the original intention of the Continental Congress was to add a star and stripe to represent every new state, it was decided with the addition of five new states in 1818 that thirteen stripes would remain and a new star would be added upon the admittance of every state.

History of the United States Flag       

Prior to the raising of the Union Flag by George Washington in January 1, 1776, the thirteen colonies did not have a flag that represented them as a united land.  Each colony or military regiment often flew a flag of their own design.  Many Northeastern regiments fought under a white flag with a green pine tree in the center.  Rhode Island regiments marched with a white flag with a blue anchor and thirteen gold stars in the center.  As the Continental Army lay siege to Boston in January of 1776, Washington ordered the Grand Union Flag to be raised on Prospect Hill in Somerville.  This flag had thirteen stripes that alternated in color from red to white and the British Union Jack in the upper left hand corner.  The stripes were meant to symbolize the thirteen colonies while the Union Jack represented ongoing loyalty to the British Constitution.

It was not until June 14, 1777 that an official flag was designated for the new nation.  The Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act that stated, “That the flag of the United States be made thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”  Between the establishment of the first Flag Act in 1777 and the year 1960 every addition of a new state and change in the design of the flag was authorized by the passing of a Flag Act.

Research for “Old Glory”

Flags as symbolism- “For many centuries flags and their kindred devices served merely as symbols of authority of the king or other military leader who displayed them.  In the later Middle Ages, however, a group of independent city states grew up in Italy.  Since these had no king or other personal ruler, they evolved the idea of a flag to symbolize the state itself.” (The History of the United States Flag, Quaife, M., 23)

Prior to the raising of the Union Flag by George Washington in January 1, 1776, the thirteen colonies did not have a flag that represented them as a united land.  Each colony or regiment often flew a  flag of their own design.  Many Northeastern regiments fought under a white flag with a green pine tree in the center.  Rhode Island regiments marched with a white flag with blue anchor and thirteen gold stars in the center.


Jan 1, 1776: Washington ordered the  Grand Union Flag to be raised during the Continental Army siege of Boston.  This flag had thirteen stripes which alternated red and white. The British Union Jack was in the upper left corner of the flag.   

“Ceremony staged on Prospect Hill, in Somerville, where a seventy-six foot flagstaff had been erected, so lofty that it could be seen even in distant Boston.  On this was hoisted the ‘Union Flag in Compliment to the United Colonies.’  This Great or Grand Union Flag was nothing more than the Meteor Flag of Great Britain modified by having six horizontal white stripes imposed in its field...These of course signified the thirteen original colonies, while retention of the British Union in the first canton testified continued loyalty, as Americans saw it, to the constitution of the government against which they fought. “ (The History of the United States Flag, Quaife, M., 26-27)

June 14, 1777: First Flag Act passed by the Continental Congress.  This act established the creation of the new country’s first official flag.  It was written, “That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

1777-1960: Upon the addition of each new state and change in the design of the flag, a new act or order has been passed.

May 1, 1795: The U.S. flag has not always had 13 stripes.  With the addition of Kentucky and Vermont an act of Congress was passed that added both two stars and two stripes to the flag.  This designed remained in use for twenty-three years and was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner.  However as new states continued to join the Union it was realized that adding a new stripe for every state would not remain practical.  On April 4, 1818, Congress declared that upon the addition of each new state a star would be added, however thirteen stripes would remain as a representation of the thirteen original colonies.   

There was no officially assigned standard for the ways in which the stars and stripes could be displayed until June 24, 1912.  As a result, many flags prior to this date show variations in design even among the same year.  The layout of each flag was decided upon by the flag maker.

Until the Executive Order of June 24, 1912, neither the order of the stars nor the proportions of the flag was prescribed. Consequently, flags dating before this period sometimes show unusual arrangements of the stars and odd proportions, these features being left to the discretion of the flag maker. In general, however, straight rows of stars and proportions similar to those later adopted officially were used.
In terms of the symbolism of the design itself, a book about the flag published by the Congress in 1977 states: "The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun."[3] George Washington is credited for saying: "We take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing Liberty."[4] # ^ The United States Flag - Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved on December 7, 2006.

White for purity, red for valor, blue for justice- The Continental Congresses description of the U.S. Seal. White stars symbolize the heavens and U.S. goals, and the stripes symbolize the rays of the sun- published by the House of Representatives.

White stars represent heaven, red symbolizes England, the white stripes show U.S. separation from England and represent liberty- believed to be said George Washington
There has never been an official explanation of the meaning of the colors of the flag.


The blue square in which the 50 5-point stars are located is known as the canton or field.  When flown by itself, the canton is called the Union Jack.  Until 2002 the U.S. Jack was used as a maritime flag on all federal vessels.

The nickname “Old Glory” was given to the American Flag by Captain William Driver when he received it as a birthday present in 1831.

Flags at Sea

Just as regiments carried flags of various design, Navy captains, and seamen are responsible for many of the unique placements of stars on flags.  Most sailors of the 19th century and earlier knew how to sew and practiced their craft at sea while they sewed clothes, repaired damaged sails, and created flags for their own personal use or for use on the vessel.  The wives of Navy captains were also frequently called upon to provide the ship with its flag.   

One type of flag found on naval vessels is the pennant.  Pennants, or pendants, are long tapering flags.  Pennants date back to Egyptian culture and were first used by naval vessels in the 17th century to distinguish themselves from merchant vessels.  Pennants may be of varying size and design and may signify the rank of the commanding officer of the vessel or ongoing events on board the ship.  The United States Navy flies the naval pennant on all commissioned vessels.  U.S. Navy pennants have become smaller in size as ships become more distinctive and recognizable from commercial vessels.  During the late 19th century pennants were found to be as large as twenty feet.

The War of 1812 & The Star-Spangled Banner
In 1802, Napoleon became emperor of France. He wanted to conquer most of Europe, and was almost successful. The British declared war on France to put a stop to Napoleon. The British had a great navy, with many warships. But they always needed sailors. Life on board ship was rough, the food was bad, and sailors could be flogged if they made a mistake. In Britain, young men were captured by press gangs who forced them to join the navy. Then the British started seizing American ships and taking sailors to serve on their own ships. This was called impressment. It was similar to kidnapping. Many Americans grew outraged over the impressment of American sailors.
Americans were angry with the British for other reasons as well. Before the American Revolutionary War, the British built forts west of the Appalachian Mountains. When the Americans won the Revolution, the British promised to hand over the forts. But by 1812, 29 years after the treaty to end the Revolution had been signed, the British still held onto their forts. They would not let settlers move west. The British also protected Native Americans who lived on lands the American settlers wanted. The Native Americans were angry that many whites wanted to seize their land.

The people who wanted to fight against Britain were called “warhawks ”. Henry Clay from Kentucky and Andrew Jackson from Tennessee were two leaders of the war hawks. Other Americans did not want to go to war against the British. People
who were involved in the sea trade, especially in New England, did not want to see their commerce disrupted.

In 1812, when James Madison was President, the United States declared war on Great Britain. The American forces invaded Canada, still a British colony, with high hopes of conquering British territory. Most of the fighting took place along the Great Lakes. Indian nations joined the British in the fighting against the Americans. The capital of Canada, York, (now known as Toronto) was attacked, and the Americans burned the Parliament building.

Ultimately, the United States was able to keep the Northwest land it had claimed, but did not succeed in capturing any part of Canada.  Meanwhile, in Europe, the British defeated Napoleon in 1814. Now they were able to focus their energy against the United States. To get revenge on the United States for burning the capital of Canada, the British troops attacked Washington, DC. First they burned the home of the U.S. Congress - the Capitol Building - and destroyed all the books in the Library of Congress. Then they headed for the President’s house.  Although President Madison wasn’t at home, his wife, Dolley Madison, was about to give a dinner party. When she heard that the British were planning to attack, she packed as many valuables as she could (including velvet curtains, silver, and important papers) into wagons.  She made sure that a portrait of George Washington was safe just before she fled.  When the British arrived, they ate the dinner she had planned to enjoy with her friends. Then they set fire to the President’s mansion.  After sacking Washington, DC, the British army planned to attack Baltimore.  Baltimore was a very important port, and the home of many American sailing ships that had fought with the British navy.  By conquering Baltimore, the British hoped to turn the war into a victory.  But Baltimore was under the command of Major General Samuel Smith, who had absolutely no intention of surrendering to the British. Amazingly enough, he convinced the ship owners in the city to sink their ships in the harbor.  These sunken vessels formed an underwater wall that the huge British warships couldn’t sail past.
Baltimore was lucky to have another fine leader, Major George Armistead, who commanded Fort McHenry.  Fort McHenry was shaped like a star, with cannons mounted at every point.  It was located on Baltimore harbor.  In 1813, a year before the British attacked, Major Armistead had hired Mary Pickersgill to sew a huge flag, 30 feet high and 42 feet wide. An expert flag maker, Mrs. Pickersgill made flags for many ships.  But even she had never made such a large flag. Her workshop was not big enough for the job.  So with the help of her 13-year-old daughter Caroline, she sewed the giant flag in a brewery, where there was enough space.  Although there were 18 states in the United States in 1813, Mrs. Pickersgill and Caroline sewed 15 stripes and 15 stars on the flag.  Each white star was two feet across! (The official American flag with 13 stripes representing the 13 colonies and one star for each state wasn’t established until 1818.)  Now Major Armistead had one of the biggest flags in the country.
A year later, in September 1814, the British prepared to attack Baltimore.  An American lawyer named Francis Scott Key and another American, John Skinner, who was in charge of prisoner exchanges, sailed up to the British fleet in a small boat.  The British had captured their friend, Dr.William Beanes.  Mr. Key requested that the British free Dr. Beanes, because he was not a soldier.  In fact, he helped many people - even British soldiers - when they were sick or wounded.  The British agreed to release the doctor, but they required that the three Americans stay on a British ship until they had finished attacking Baltimore. 
Mr. Key, Dr. Beanes, and Mr. Skinner had no choice.  All they could do was watch as the British navy fired huge 200-pound bombs and rockets at Fort McHenry. Because of the ships sunk in Baltimore harbor, the warships could not get close enough to land.  But they fired upon Fort McHenry for 25 hours.  It was very smoky, and darkness fell. The three Americans who were witnessing the bombing from a British ship were very scared that Baltimore would be conquered.  They could not see through all the smoke and the dark night.

Finally at dawn, on September 14, 1814, Mr. Key looked through his telescope. There, in the early morning light, he saw the huge American flag waving proudly over Fort McHenry.  The Americans had won the battle! He was overcome with joy, and was inspired to write some poetry.  In a few days, his completed poem was published, entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry”.  These words, set to music, would later become the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
Americans were very happy and relieved that Baltimore had defeated the British attack.  But the war was not over yet.  More fighting took place along the Gulf of Mexico.  The most famous American victory took place in New Orleans on January 8, 1815, where General Andrew Jackson defeated the British.  The Americans had already signed a treaty of peace in Ghent, Belgium, on December 24, 1814.  But news of peace had not arrived in time.

In New Orleans, 6,000 trained British troops fought against Tennessee and Kentucky frontiers men, two companies of free African-American volunteers from New Orleans, and other American soldiers.  At the end of the battle, 2,000 British were killed or wounded and only 13 Americans had died.  It was a huge victory for the United States, even if it happened after the peace treaty had been signed.  But it was tragic that so many people died needlessly in New Orleans.

The War of 1812 established the United States as an independent nation that even the great powers in Europe had to respect.  And Francis Scott Key ’s experience during the bombing of Fort McHenry inspired the patriotic song, “The Star-Spangled Banner”.  The giant flag that flew over the fort “by the dawn’s early light” would become a national treasure.  Today, that same flag is being preserved at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, so that it will last for generations to come.

The Star-Spangled Banner Project, Smithsonian National Museum of American History & The History Channel           

Local Images from the Archives



13 Stars, 13 Stripes, date unknown, Dimensions  58" x 36"

This flag may be an example of an 1876 centennial flag. Numerous 13 star flags were manufactured for the nation's 100th birthday.  This flag was stitched using a sewing machine.  Although a sewing machine was patented in Europe in 1755, they were not in common use in the United States until the 1850s.  This flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Philip Crossman in 1956.


29 Stars
13 Stripes
c. Dec. 28, 1846-July 4, 1848

This regimental flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Mildred Bailey Pierce in 1958.  It was reported that this flag was carried by a regiment in the Mexican War.

Dimensions 72" x 74"


37 Stars
13 Stripes
c. 1869-1878

This flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum in 1950 by Adda B. Williams.  The flag belonged to William A. Dart, a consul-general for the British Provinces of North America at the Consulate in Montreal.  Mr. Williams was appointed by President Grant and held the position from 1869 to 1878.

Dimensions 16' x 8'


38 Stars, 13 Stripes, date unknown, Dimensions 60" x 41"

This flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Paul Lee in 1945.  It is reported that this flag was made by a sailor replica horloges nederland and given to Mr. Lee's father after a narrow escape on Long Island Sound.


38 Stars
13 Stripes           
date unknown

This large flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Sanford Dewey in 1978.  It has been reported that this flag was used in parades held as fundraisers during World War II.  The flag originally belonged to Frederick L. Dewey, president of Citizen's National Bank.

Dimensions 74" x 136"


44 Stars, 13 Stripes, date unknown

This canoe flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Edwin Barry in 1980.  It was used on the Racquette River.

Dimensions 23.5" x 15"


45 Stars, 13 Stripes           
c.  1896-1908

This large flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Miriam S. Krebs in 1971.  It is constructed of wool.

Dimensions 97" x 74"


46 Stars
13 Stripes           
c.  1907-1912

This flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Marguerite Chapman in 1962.

Dimensions 100" x 58"


48 Stars
13 Stripes           
c.  1912-1959

This flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Marguerite Gurley Chapman  in 1941.  It belonged to the Universalist Church of Potsdam, a building that now houses the Potsdam Museum.

Dimensions 117" x 47"


? Stars
13 Stripes           
c.  1976

This American Bicentennial flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum in 1976.  It is constructed of nylon.
Dimensions 101" x 65"


1 Red Cross,c. World War I (1914-1918), Dimensions 15.5" x 29"

This flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Mrs. S.P. Brown, wife of Dr. Sidney Pope Brown, in 1965.  The hospital service flag accompanied  the sanitary detachment of the 107th Signal Battalion during the World War I.


1 Blue Star           
date unknown

Service flags may be displayed by  immediate family or organizations that have members serving in the Armed Forces. The blue star represents an active member of the military.  This flag was donated to the museum in 1991.
Dimensions 16.5" x 12"


7 Stars, 2 Stripes, date unknown

This U.S. Navy Commission pennant was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Mr. Paul Lee  in 1945.  It has been reported that the pennant was made by a sailor and given to Mr. Lee's father by the sailor after their escape on Long Island Sound.  Seven-star pennants are flown on smaller commissioned navy vessels, including submarines.

Dimensions 5.5" x 10'


10 Blue Stars, 2 Yellow Stars, c.1917, Dimensions 22" x 34"
Service flags may be displayed by immediate family or organizations that have members serving in the Armed Forces. The blue stars represent active service members.  The gold stars represent members who have perished while in service.  This flag hung in the Sunday School room of the Universalist Church and was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Marguerite Gurley Chapman in 1917. 


48 Stars, 3 Stripes, c.1912-1959
This banner was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Miriam Haywood in 1966.  It is reported to have been used by the Nihanawate Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Dimensions 18" x 94"


Blue "V"
1 Blue Star           
c.  1940

American Service flags were first displayed during World War I and became widely used during World War II.  The blue star represents an active member of the military who was either an immediate family member, employee, or patron of the family, business,  or organization that displayed this flag.  This service flag was donated to the Potsdam Museum by Miriam Haywood in 1969.

Dimensions 9" x 12"


Bicentennial logo           
c.  1976

This bicentennial banner was given to the Potsdam Museum by an anonymous donor.

Dimensions 74" x 136"


3 Crosses           
date unknown

This Union Flag is on loan to the Potsdam Museum from SUNY Potsdam.

Dimensions 5' x 4'


13 stars, on blue field, centered on quilt
9 red stripes and 8 white stripes, c. 1791

Stars are appliqued.  Quilting is diagonally, along the stripes. Backing is white.  Made of 2 ply linen thread, which indicates it was made before 1800.  The quilting and piecing is done with cotton thread, by hand.

Donated in 1966 by Mr. And Mrs. Malford J. Crane for the Eastman Collection.

Dimensions: approx. 71"x 80"