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The Evolution of the American Flag as a National Icon


The Evolution of the American Flag as a National Icon

Smithsonian’s virtual gallery showcases the Stars and Stripes in its various forms

There’s a lot more story, art — and heart — behind the American flag than many people know. As we approach Independence Day, and as our nation continues to grapple with its history, now is a good time to look at just how the Stars and Stripes have been displayed over the years.

The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museumeducation, and research complex, has put together a virtual gallery that showcases the Star-Spangled Banner in various forms. Here’s a look at some of the most iconic pieces featuring the flag that are on display in the virtual gallery and in the Smithsonian museums.

American Flag Moccasins, 1870s

It’s common to see shoes adorned with the American flag today, but these moccasins may have paved the way 150 years ago.

According to the Smithsonian, “A delegation of Plains Indians gave these beaded moccasins to President Ulysses S. Grant during a 1870s peace conference in Washington, D.C. The design unites motifs and forms from both cultures as a powerful statement of hopeful coexistence.”

The moccasins are on display at National Museum of American History. Learn more here.

American flag- moccasins
Moccasins with American flag motif, Indian beadwork presented to President Grant, 1870. PL*308316.005.[Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution]

Old Glory Flag

In 1824, Captain William Driver was given this huge American flag, which he called “Old Glory.” According to the Smithsonian, the flag accompanied Driver on his numerous voyages around the world. When he gave up seafaring and moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1837, Driver continued to display the flag proudly by hanging it from a locust tree. He updated the flag in 1861 to reflect thirty-four stars and added an anchor in the corner to indicate his sea service.

“When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Driver had the foresight to hide the flag and had his daughter conceal it inside a quilt, which was overlooked in numerous raids on his house,” the Smithsonian states. “Old Glory remained in the quilt until February 25, 1862 when Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Donelson and occupied Nashville. On that day Driver uncovered the flag, marched through the streets to the capitol building, climbed to its dome, and hoisted the flag for all to see.”

The flag is on display at the National Museum of American History. Learn more here.

Mary J. D. Roland [Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution]

Drawing of the House Where First American Flag was Made

Artist Ernest C. Peixotto created this ink drawing in 1897. It shows the home where the first American flag was made.

Find the painting at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in its Renwick Gallery. Learn more here.

[Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution]

Colored Troops Flag

In 1863 the Louisiana Native Guards became part of the Corps d’Afrique, and in 1864 soldiers from that corps formed the 84th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, according to the Smithsonian. The unit fought primarily in Louisiana with three other regiments of colored troops and a larger force of Union volunteers.

“This flag belonged to the 84th Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops. The red stripes bear the regiment’s name and number,” the Smithsonian writes. “Inscribed on the flag are Port Hudson, where the Louisiana Native Guards and the Corps d’Afrique fought before the 84th formed, as well as four battles in which the regiment took part during the Red River Campaign and an engagement in Texas at war’s end.”

The flag is at the National Museum of American History. Learn more here.

Flag, 84th Regiment. 1982.0379.01. [Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution]

Portrait of Neil Armstrong on Moon

This acrylic painting, from July 1969, by artist Louis S. Glanzman portrays Neil Armstrong on the moon carrying the American flag.

The Apollo 11 mission—NASA’s first attempt to land men on the moon—was a unifying moment for America in a decade rife with social discord, racial violence, and antiwar protests. Time magazine covered every facet of the nine-day mission. This painting ran on the cover of Time, in what became one of the magazine’s most popular issues.

The National Portrait Gallery holds the painting. Learn more here.

[Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution]

American Flag Recovered from the World Trade Center

This badly damaged American flag was found in the World Trade Center debris after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001. It became the dominant symbol to emerge from the tragedy.

“Raised over the World Trade Center ruins and hung from the damaged Pentagon, the flag became a powerful symbol of patriotism, survival, and resilience,” the Smithsonian writes of the flag. “Many Americans, who at one time had rejected overt displays of patriotism, returned to flying the flag at home, at work, even from their cars. The shared symbolism of the meaning of the flag helped unite Americans in a time of crisis.”

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The flag is at the National Museum of American History. Learn more here.

U.S. flag, found during the September 11, 2001 recovery operation at Fresh Kills, Staten Island, New York. From 120mm ektachrome. 2003.0007.01. [Courtesy fo Smithsonian Institution]

Evel Knievel’s Jumpsuit

The famous stuntman Evel Knievel wore this jumpsuit at the height of his career in the early 1970s. Knievel combined athletic ability and showmanship to reach worldwide fame and popularity. He made his motorcycle soar over rows of vehicles.

For his costumes, Knievel chose custom-made jumpsuits with patriotic designs and white leather to contrast with black leather jackets.

The jumpsuit is on display at the National Museum of American History. Learn more here.

Jumpsuit and cape, worn by Evel Knievel. 1995.0032.01, 1995.0032.02. Also shown, 1972 Harley Davidson XR-750 motorcycle. 1994.0306.01. From 35mm ektachrome. [Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution]

Captain America Shield

From a 200-year-old hand-sewn flag to a super hero prop, what better way to showcase the evolution of the American flag. Actor Chris Evans carried the shield as Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The shield is at the National Museum of American History. Learn more here.

2018.0107.01 [Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution]

More Artistic Fuel:

An Indigenous Scholar Uses Art to Redeem American History

The Bob Dylan Mural: A Bright Spot in Minneapolis’ Public Art Scene

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