Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mooney Column, June 14, 2010

Antelope Valley Press
Edward Mooney, Jr.
June 14, 2010

Title: Happy Birthday to our Red, White and Blue Vexillum!

Did you read Rich Breault's article earlier this year about my passion for vexillology?  Before we go on, I have to warn you.  This week's column contains a high concentration of "nerdiness".

Let's get back to the topic - "vexillology".  Roman legions carried a banner into battle that they referred to as a "vexillum".  That word means, loosely, a "sail" or a "cloth in the wind".  Of course, the suffix "-ology" stands for the "study of".  So, "vexillology" is the study of flags.

You knew I was going to do a column on flags today, right?  What?  You're not sure why?  I'll spell it out.

Two hundred and thirty-three years ago, on June 14th, 1777, before our nation was a year old, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Act of 1777.  That piece of legislation said, simply, that it was "Resolved, 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."

That was the beginning of what we now refer to as the "American flag", also known as "Old Glory", the "Stars and Stripes", and the "Star Spangled Banner."  That was the beginning, but next month, in a matter of weeks, our beloved "vexillum" will mark an incredible milestone.  More on that later, but let's look back on the colorful (sorry about the pun) past of Old Glory for a bit.

This week, let's discover the origins and early days of our flag.

1. The Continental Congress enacted that piece of legislation because of a request for an "American flag".  So, who sent that request in? Surprisingly, a tribe of native Americans!  There was another urgent need - for colors on naval vessels at sea.

2. Early American flags would sometimes be unrecognizable to modern American eyes.  Notice that in the original Flag Act the dimensions, distribution and layout of the flag were not specified.

3. Believe it or not, some flags had the thirteen stripes in the top corner of the flag, called the "canton" or "union".  Sometimes they graced the corner furthest away from the flag pole, in the area of the flag we call a "fly". Both of these had the stars strewn about the rest of the flag.  Other flags had vertical stripes.  Notice THAT detail was not specified.

4. Now, as to the stars, observe that no one specified how many points there should be on each one.  We had stars with all kinds of points on them.  Six point stars were easy to make, and most often used.

5. That brings us, of course, to the story of Betsy Ross.  Now, sit down for a moment.  I'm have to report that no one had heard of Mrs. Ross until her grandson appeared at a Philadelphia historical society meeting and inquired into the family legend that the fine lady had sewn the first
American flag.  That was in the 1870s.

Take a deep breath.  We know some things for sure, such as the fact that she was a seamstress, and often worked for Francis Hopkinson, who was known to make flags for the fledgling US Navy.  That's it.  I have a friend who spent a lot of time in Washington, DC, researching this.  As many scholars before him could testify, this is the best piece of evidence we have, other than the Ross family stories.

But this was only the beginning.  Next week we'll look into our flag during the 1800s.  On June 28th we'll explore the flag in the Twentieth Century.

This year Flag Day is worthy of three weeks of columns.  The reason is quite simple.  On July 4th, our Great 50 Star Flag turns 50 years old.  Ladies and gentlemen, no other version of the Star Spangled Banner has reached this milestone.  The next longest serving version was the 48 star banner - which flew for 47 years.

On my way back from Canada years ago, I remember the emotions I felt when I saw that bright red, white and blue flag crisply flying at the border station.  I knew I was home.   I do not worship our flag, but to me it embodies everything that home means - freedom, dignity and hope.

Happy 50th, 50 Star!  July 4th is your big day!

Thought for the Week: "I long to be in the Field again, doing my part to keep the old flag up, with all its stars." - Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, hero of Gettysburg.  Dedicated to my Lake LA friend, Roger Ryan.

Edward Mooney, Jr., a Palmdale author, is the 2010 DAR History Teacher of the Year for California.

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