Broad stripes and bright stars

When you think of a flag, what do you see? A piece of cloth with bright colors? Something flapping in the wind at the top of a ship or waving at the finish line of a race? Maybe you see a lot of flags together such as the ones outside the United Nations in New York City. Or on special occasions decorating city streets. Or maybe you see one gigantic flag on a tall flagpole in the center of your town.

One of my favorite summer games is called ``Capture the flag.'' In the evening, all the kids in my neighborhood, or at summer camp, would get together and play. Two teams each have a flag and hide it. The trick is to capture the other team's flag without getting caught, while at the same time defending your own flag. But a flag isn't just for games or colorful decoration. An official flag stands for something - it's a symbol. It could represent a country, such as France or Italy, or it could stand for a group such as a Boy Scout troop or a school. Sometimes a flag represents an idea such as peace, unity, or ecology.

Official flags are meant to be treated with respect. For example, the United States has a whole set of codes explaining how to raise, lower, display, carry, fold, and honor the flag. Other countries have certain rules they follow, too. To show disrespect for a country's flag is against the law in some nations.

The American flag is called the Star-Spangled Banner, named after a poem by Francis Scott Key. During the War of 1812, Key was taken prisoner on a British ship outside Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Md. When the British retreated, a huge American flag was raised at the fort. Set free, Key was so inspired by the sight that he wrote a poem that was later put to music. The song is now our national anthem.

You may know that the Star-Spangled Banner has 13 stripes, which make up what's called the field; and 50 stars on a blue background, which make up what's called the canton. But it hasn't always been that way.

In the 1700s, the American colonists adopted a flag that looked like the British Union Jack flag in the canton, along with red and white stripes in the field. This flag was called ``Continental colors.'' After the colonies declared independence from the British, they came up with their own Stars and Stripes flag.

Although many people think that Betsy Ross of Philadelphia sewed the first American flag, there is no real proof that she did. The claim started in 1870 when William Canby, Betsy Ross's grandson, told the Philadelphia Historical Society that George Washington and other government officials asked Mrs. Ross to sew the first Stars and Stripes in June 1776.

The truth is, Mrs. Ross was a seamstress and did indeed make flags, but there are no records of any meeting with George Washington or any receipts for such a flag. Many flag historians, called vexillologists, doubt that a flag which represents Independence was created before July 1776. They believe that the first Stars and Stripes came at least a year later when Congress decided that the American flag of 13 states would have 13 stripes alternate red and white and 13 white stars on a blue field, representing a new constellation. It is also believed that many people were involved in its design.

As more states joined the Union, more stars and more stripes were added to the flag. But the government decided that having more and more stripes would make the flag look funny, so they went back to 13 stripes and just kept adding stars. Can you imagine what the flag would look like today with 50 stars and 50 stripes?

After Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union, the 50-star flag that we know of today was born - 50 five-pointed white stars on a blue background to make up the canton, and 13 alternating red and white stripes, to make up the field.

With the 50 stars, standing for the present states, and the 13 stripes, standing for the original states, you might say that the flag represents America's past and present.

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