Before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when some colonists still believed America would retain some loyalty to Great Britain, the first American flag featured the British Union Jack in place of the 50 stars known today, along with 13 stripes to represent the colonies. Although never formally adopted by Congress, this flag was known as the Grand Union Flag, and was flown on Prospect Hill in Somerville, Mass., by Gen. George Washington on New Year's Day in 1776.
This flag quickly became obsolete when the colonists declared independence from Great Britain. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that read "the flag of the United States be made of 13 stripes -- alternate red and white -- and that the Union be 13 stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." This resolution, however, still left many of the details of the flag's design open to interpretation, Gatewood said.
The Flag Act of 1794 called for two new stars and stripes to be added because Vermont and Kentucky had been admitted as states. This flag, with 15 stars and 15 stripes, was the country's national flag for about a quarter of a century, from 1795-1818. It was this flag design that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," during a battle in the War of 1812. The Flag Act of 1818 restored the 13 stripes to represent the original colonies, whereas the number of stars matched the number of states. Today, the proportions of the flag and arrangement of the stars and stripes are specifically prescribed, Gatewood said, through presidential executive orders signed by President Taft in 1912 and President Eisenhower in 1959.
According to Gatewood, since the adoption of the 13-star flag of 1777, there have been 27 officially mandated flags and 11 unofficial flags, each representing a milestone in our nation's history.