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The American flag is arguably the most iconic flag flying today. But today’s flag was not sprung from whole cloth. It took some twists and turns to get from the British colonial ensign to the Stars & Stripes we know today, which you can see for yourself in this guide to the evolution of the American flag.

The Colonial Flag

The American flag as we know it today traces its history back to the Red Ensign of the British colonies. This flag, which represented the British Empire’s holdings in the New World, featured the Union Flag of the time—the English red cross on white, superimposed upon the Scottish white cross on blue—in the upper-left corner, or canton, on a field of red. With the colors of red, white, and blue on a flag that utilized the upper-left corner as a key design element, it’s easy to see the Red Ensign as the antecedent of our Stars & Stripes.

The Revolutionary Flag

Before Betsy Ross put needle to thread, the colonial Red Ensign evolved to the Grand Union Flag—the familiar thirteen alternating stripes of red and white with the British Union Flag in the upper-left canton. The USS Alfred, a warship stationed in Philadelphia, was the site of the flag’s first hoisting, and the Grand Union Flag served as the symbol of the revolting colonies as they fought for their freedom against the British.

Alternative Flags

The flag’s evolution is not a straight line. On its way to the familiar design that we recognize today were several other designs that competed for semiotic glory. The flag of New England, which also grew from the Red Ensign, featured a green pine tree on a white canton and may have flown over the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Gadsden flag, which depicted a snake subtitled “Don’t Tread On Me” on a field of gold was based on a Benjamin Franklin cartoon depicting the colonies as a chopped-up snake and still endures to this day as an alternative show of patriotism.

Deciding Upon the Stars & Stripes

But according to legend, it was Betsy Ross who determined the course of the American flag for good when she stitched a circle of thirteen white stars on a navy-blue canton with the thirteen red and white stripes of the colonies. By the 14th of June 1777, the Stars & Stripes were here to stay. Once we enshrined Old Glory as the flag of the United States, it continued to evolve through the years by adding stars to its canton for each new state that joined the union. While the 50-state Stars & Stripes has been the longest-running iteration in the evolution of the American flag, designs accounting for a fifty-first star in the canton are already waiting in the wings. In that future and the present, Federal Flags is your place to buy American flags, allowing you to show your patriotism and love for this iconic design.