When it comes to setting aside days for American patriotism, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and, of course, the good old Fourth of July get all the attention. But there’s another day each year to observe the history and symbols of our nation: the 14th of June, better known as Flag Day. The anniversary of the Continental Congress’s resolution to recognize Betsy Ross’s design as the American flag is a day for reflecting on the freedoms and sacrifices the American flag represents. It also slots nicely between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July as an opportunity for the most American of traditions: the summer cookout. Here’s a short look at the fascinating history behind Flag Day.
Like many developing traditions, Flag Day wasn’t immediately a runaway success. The first attempt at commemorating the flag on the anniversary of its ratification was in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1861. However, Hartford did not hold a similar observance in 1862. But in 1885, in the small town of Waubeka, Wisconsin, dentist and schoolteacher Bernard Cigrand added a third occupation to his résumé: popularizer of Flag Day. Dedicated to his cause, Cigrand traveled the country advocating for Flag Day and even published a magazine, The American Standard, which he used to promote the concept of Flag Day in what one could consider a 19th-century analogue to this Federal Flags blog.
Flag Day vs. Organized Labor
On its way to official federal observance, Flag Day took some detours. In 1913, the city of Paterson, New Jersey, declared the 17th of March to be Flag Day as a counterattack on striking textile laborers, implying that workers who organized under red labor flags were unpatriotic. The Industrial Workers of the World, in response, continued their organizing efforts with American flags in tow, charging that there was nothing unpatriotic about their struggle for safety and dignity in the workplace. This bad-faith approach to Flag Day did not find purchase beyond Paterson in 1913.
Flag Day 1942–1944: United Nations Day
World War II changed a lot of traditions on the home front, and the observance of Flag Day was among them. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rechristened Flag Day as United Nations Day, a celebration of solidarity among the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union—the allies that would go on to form the United Nations we know today. United Nations Day stood in for Flag Day through 1944, after which the May 1945 surrender of Nazi Germany would revert the day back to Flag Day. United Nations Day continues as an October holiday, celebrating the establishment of the supranational governing body that formed after the war.
Flag Day Today
In 1949, following Bernard Cigrand’s hard work, the fascinating history behind Flag Day culminated in President Harry S. Truman signing the act that officially observed Flag Day, leading to growth in flags and flagpoles for sale. Today, Flag Day is an opportunity for parades, celebrations, and contemplation alike.