Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mormon Founders of Las Vegas Celebrate the Fourth of July in 1855

Celebrating the Fourth of July in 1855, Mormon founders of Las Vegas' Old Fort raised an improvised flag of Deseret.
Named Las Vegas, meaning the meadows in Spanish, the valley boasted springs which attracted travelers on the Old Spanish Trail. In 1855, Brigham Young sent William Bringhurst and thirty men to establish a way station in the Las Vegas Valley. The area was part of the proposed State of Deseret, but was not included in the Utah Territory established in 1850. Young, however, recognized the strategic importance of Las Vegas as a stopping place between Salt Lake and San Diego.
John Steele recorded in his Journal and in a letter to George A. Smith the 1855 Independence Day celebration at the Old Mormon Fort. "On the Fourth of July" Steele wrote, "we made preparations to celebrate independence, and indeed we did it justice according to our situation." Not having an artillery piece to fire a salute, Steele reported, "the blacksmith's anvil answered for a cannon." The cavity of an anvil was packed with black powder with an inverted anvil placed upon it. The seam was sealed with mud and a fuse leading to the powder lit. The resulting explosion launches the second anvil about on hundred feet into the air. This "shooting off of the anvils" imitated the sound of a firing cannon. This and "many volley of musketry gave the sleeping native to know something was up."
Bringhurst gave Steele 1 ½ yards of white cloth to make a flag. Steele also scrounged a red flannel shirt and some blue denim from an old pair of jeans. Tearing the red and white fabric into stripes, he "took some blue[from the jeans] and made stars." Eighteen small stars were cut in all. They were placed with "nine [stars] on a side [of the flag], with a large eight pointed star in the center representing Deseret." 

This vague description is open to several interpretations. One version has been made up and is on display at the Old Mormon Fort in Las Vegas. A careful reading of the description found in both Steele's journal and letter lead me to a different interpretation of the probable design. My interpretation is also made having had the experience of making several flags with stars and stripes in their design. Neither version is probably completely accurate. We don't know how many red and white stripes were made. The size of the union is unknown. The pattern of the stars is not disclosed. Nevertheless, the stars were most likely blue on a white canton with nine stars and a larger star of Deseret on the front of the flag with the remaining stars on the back of the flag. While this may seem strange to modern eyes, the design is consistent with other flags of Deseret made during the period.
The flag was not ready to be raised at sunrise. Steele completed the flag by early afternoon. Not having "good timber" for a liberty pole, the men "got a mesquite stump, a false wagon tongue, and a tall willow, and made a pole 30 feet high." Here at two o'clock in the afternoon, they "shook out the flag at the sound of guns [and ] three cheers." At the Old Fort's bowery, the men enjoyed "spirited speeches, songs, and toasts…." These pioneers indeed did justice in their celebration of the Fourth.
Today, Las Vegas lies in Nevada, not Utah. Nonetheless, its Flag of Deseret remains an illuminating example in the story of Utah's flags.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Folding the United States Flag

  A United States Air Force Honor Guard conducts a flag-folding ceremony at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
We Americans often believe that the traditions we observe in displaying our flag are centuries old and universal. In fact, some rules of flag display only had their origin in the Twentieth Century. Some flag traditions may spring from our history as a nation. Other details of our flag usage have origins obscured by the mist of time. Yet through it all the traditions of flag display continue to grow. Franklin K. Lane, the Interior Secretary expressed it well when he said, speaking for the flag, "I am what you make me; nothing more."
One tradition has grown dramatically in recent times, folding the United States flag. The latest embellishment on the folding ceremony counts the number of folds and gives each fold a symbolic meaning. This adds symbolism to a ceremony that has long been impressive. The United States military makes the folding of burial flags a touching part of funerals. Youth organizations have long taught their members to fold the U.S. flag into a triangle forming a cocked hat shape. Nevertheless, we may wonder where this tradition began.

First of all, folding a flag in a triangular pattern is not a universal flag custom. Other nations have no ceremonial fold for flags. Flags are simply folded in a practical way for storage. Actually, when folding any textiles, the simpler the fold the better. Each fold adds stress to the fibers of the material. For new flags currently in use, the number of folds is not that significant. Conversely, for antique flags the number of folds and their complexity can damage fragile fibers hastening the fabric's deterioration. Museums avoid folding flags for storage whenever they can. Flags, rather, are rolled on acid free cardboard tubes backed with acid free tissue paper and covered with cloth or nonreactive polyethylene plastic.

In fact folding the flag into the triangle is not required by the United States Flag Code. The flag may be folded in any appropriate way. The important thing is to care for and store the United States flag in ways that protect it from becoming damaged or soiled. Folding the flag into a triangle is impressive, but it is not required.

Our folding of the U.S. flag probably began at sea. Flags and ensigns are necessary nautical gear. Ships without flags may be considered pirates. Still, storage space at sea is at a premium. Over the centuries sailors have learned to stow nautical gear efficiently. The saying "a place for everything and everything in its place" had particular meaning at sea. In British naval tradition, the ship's ensign when lowered is brailed. A brail is a rope or line used to furl or gather in a sail. In like manner, a flag is furled by folding it lengthwise several times and then rolling it tightly. The roll is then secured with a brail that has been sewn into the flag's heading. Thus brailed, the ensign is stowed until it is again hoisted. To break out the ensign at hoisting, the brailed flag is attached to the halyards by the rope or line sewn into the flag's heading. Still brailed, it is raised to its full position in the rigging. Then, a tug on the halyard frees the rolled flag and it unfurls dramatically in the wind.

Folding the United States flag in its accustomed triangular fold serves much the same purpose as brailing a flag. The triangular fold produces a neat envelope or packet where the flag is wrapped in itself. When the last flap is folded into the pocket produced by folding, the flag is neat and orderly. It is ready to be "stowed" or stored away until its next use.

How did Americans start folding into a triangle? It is often explained that the triangle symbolizes a three cornered cocked hat as worn during the American Revolution. This is likely a romantic explanation created later. The origin is somewhat obscured by the passage of time. However the custom began, early Americans did not record how they folded the flag and why.

There is one narrative that ties to the story of the historical American flag known as Old Glory. Several versions of the story give slightly different details. However, the substance of the story remains the same.

In 1824 a New England ship's captain prepared to embark on a sea voyage. Several ladies of Salem, his home port, made a ship's ensign for the new captain. His mother was part of the group that presented the flag to William Driver. To consecrate the flag, it was folded into a triangle which represented the Christian Trinity. Narrations explained that his was an "ancient custom of the sea." A minister or priest is said to have blessed the flag in the names of the Trinity intoning each blessing while emphasizing corners of the folded flag. As the clergyman said the words "In the name of the Father," the onlookers responded by chanting the word "glory." The word glory was repeated as the names of the Son and the Holy Ghost were added to the blessing. Then Captain Driver hoisted his new ship's flag and informed the crew "I'll call her old glory, boys, old glory."

Having retired from the sea, Driver moved to Nashville, Tennessee. During the Civil War, he hid the flag from Confederates intent on confiscating and destroying it. When Federal troops captured Nashville, Driver met soldiers from the Ohio 6th Infantry and raised Old Glory over the Tennessee State Capitol. The 6th Ohio adopted the motto "Old Glory" as its own. Apparently, Driver gave the regiment a smaller U.S. flag. Did he fold the gift flag in a triangle that was copied by the soldiers for folding other U.S. flags? That is possible, though certainly not documented.

United States Military Regulations of the Nineteenth Century do not mention folding the flag. Even current regulations mention it mainly as a part of funeral ceremonies. How to fold the United States flag is more important to us today than it was in the past.

Narrations have been written giving symbolic interpretation for each fold that is made when folding the United States flag. These can add new meaning to the ceremony as the flag is folded. This will not be the last change to our flag customs. They continue to evolve to reflect the ideals that we find important. They give new meaning to our flag. The Flag of the United States of America is what we make it. It has the meaning we give it. The flag and its meaning will grow as does our nation.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

U.S. Flag in the Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century saw the number of U.S. States increase from forty-five to fifty. Five flags mirrored that growth. An increase from forty-five to forty-six in 1908 for Oklahoma; a jump from forty-six to forty-eight for New Mexico & Arizona in 1912; Alaska made forty-nine in 1959; and finally, in 1960, Hawaii brought the total to fifty. There it has remained for fifty years. Only the forty-eight star flag, with 47 years, approaches the longevity of the fifty star flag.

The common pattern of stars and stripes has existed since the American Revolution. But the admission of new states has hardly been smooth or predictable. For most of the flag's history, the pattern of stars has been anything but "regulation." Sometimes the Army and the Navy had different versions of the flag. During the Civil War, the white stars even turned gold on Army National Colors. Silver paint oxidized and turned the stars black. For that reason gold paint, which does not oxidize, was substituted. Cavalry standards of the era even cut a "v" from the stripes to form a swallow tale flag. American flags were anything but uniform.

The regularity we take for granted did not come into being until 1912. President William Howard Taft appointed a blue ribbon, or perhaps better described, a red, white and blue committee. Spanish American War hero, Admiral George Dewey, served as chairman. Very much like a military formation, the stars were arranged in six even rows of eight stars each. Looking at that pattern of stars, one can almost hear the military order, "Dress and Cover!" For those who have not enjoyed the privilege of standing a military formation. The stars in the forty-eight star flag lined up evenly horizontally and vertically, not in staggered rows as we have known before and since. Nevertheless, the real innovation of 1912 came with the establishment of ratios for all the elements of the United States flag: the ratio of length to width, the ratio of the dimension of the blue union to the whole. Even the stars were assigned a ration of 0.0616 of the hoist. Why 0.0616 and not 0.0615? I envisioned President Taft sitting up in the Lincoln bed with a yellow legal pad and a slide rule working it out. Actually, 0.0616 is the decimal version of the relation of the diameter of the stars to the width of the stripes. A stripe is ⅟13th of the width of the flag or 0.0769 which rounds off to 0.077. The stars are ⅘th or 0.8 of the width of the stripes. The decimal number 0.077 time 0.8 equals 0.0616. I don't know who figured that one out; probably not President Taft. Nevertheless, it was President Taft who made it all official. He made the forty-eight star flag official by Presidential Proclamation. That is the pattern that has been followed by succeeding presidents when new stars have been added to the flag.

Are the stars actually that exact ratio? Well, not exactly. The stars on U.S. flags used to be appliquéd on the blue field. Considering the number of stars front and back, that becomes a tedious and expensive process. Fifty stars on the front and fifty stars on the back for one hundred stars on each flag. Flag makers have learned tricks to make producing starry unions easier. Nonetheless only stars on large flags are appliquéd in place today. Most flag have printed or embroidered stars. The beautiful embroidered stars look elaborate. Many people assume they are costly to make. Yet they are actually embroidered by sophisticated machines that produce starry field rapidly. While the machines are expensive, once purchased they produce large numbers of star spangled unions that are much more cost effective that appliquéd ones would be. Still, they can only produce stars of a few standard sizes. Flag makers get as close to the 0.0616 as possible. Even President Taft and Admiral Dewey would agree that these flags are beautiful.

Figuring the dimensions of the United States flag using the proportions scaled using the ratios based on the hoist or with is nonetheless awkward. Basing the ratio on the width of the stripe actually makes the task of constructing the flag easier. It is logical that if the width of the stripe is defined as one, the width of the flag is thence thirteen. Converting the rest of the ratios established in 1912, we find that the length of the flag is 24.7 which rounds to 25 units equal to the width of the stripe. The diameter of the star is no longer the complex 0.0616 ordained in 1912; it is now simply four fifths or eight tenths of the width of the stripes. See the diagram shown below to find the ration of the flag's elements in ratio to the width of the stripes. Flags of different sizes can be easily drawn, painted or sewn.

How do we make a five pointed star? Heavens to Betsy. The story of Samuel Wetherill, his safe and Betsy Ross' star is one that is seldom told. Well, that's another story for another time.