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Designer of the Flag (U.S.)

Last modified: 2013-09-06 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | legend | lore | myth |
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Designer of the first U.S. flag

Betsy Ross' grandson, William Canby, said in 1870 that Washington and a committee of Congress came to Betsy in 1776 (prior to Independence) with a flag design that incorporated six-pointed stars. Betsy showed them how she could fold a piece of material and with one snip of the scissors, make a perfect five pointed star, which, according to Canby, was more desirable (in 1882, when he expanded the legend, he said it was more heraldically correct, which is not true).

Trouble is, this story has more holes in it than Swiss Cheese!

Fact: No record of a Committee of Congress in 1776 working on a new flag (although the Marine Committee was procuring well-documented Continental Colors design flags for ships at the time).

Fact: George Ross, one of the supposed committee members, was not a member of Congress in June, 1776.

Fact: Washington engaged in a series of correspondences up until 1783 when the War was over and the matter became moot debating a design for the Flag as to be used by the Army that is "variant from the Marine Flag" which is the Stars and Stripes.

Fact: No one was interested in an official U.S. Flag, let alone the Stars and Stripes prior to Independence. Even then, it took nearly a year for someone to propose it to Congress.

Fact: Six, seven, eight pointed stars were nearly as common as five pointed stars prior to the end of the 18th century. The number of points on the stars was never specified by Congress.

Fact: William Canby's original paper stated this was a *story* he heard from his grandmother. He suggested more research was needed to confirm the details. He never actually claimed it was true. In fact, his original paper states that he had searched U.S. Records extensively and found nothing to support his grandmother's story.

Fact: Francis Hopkinson was the only individual to actually claim the credit for the design of the U.S. Flag at the time. He billed Congress for "a quarter cask of the public wine" for his efforts. Congress did not outright deny his claim but sat on it for years. Only after Hopkinson rebilled his claim in cash, *along with other claims for other emblems*, did Congress act on it, denying it on the grounds that Hopkinson was not the only person who had a hand in designing the flag *and other emblems.*
Dave Martucci, 8 January 1998

Actually, William Canby's original paper of 1870 states the legend was passed to him by Betsy herself but that he had extensively searched government archives and that he found not a shred of evidence for it. He asked others to let him know if any corroborating evidence should ever come to light.

By the 1880's he had received a few affidavits from other contemporary people then in their late 90's and from Betsy's daughters and granddaughters stating they also heard the story from the grand dame's mouth. That is all the evidence there is. Canby never stated the story was true.
Dave Martucci, 16 January 1998

Designer of the 50 star U.S. flag

"Given the nature of previous American flag designs with fewer stars, a large number of near-identical 50-star designs were conceived by flag designers across the United States at about the same time. The honour of creating the first is open to considerable debate, but it is often claimed by Robert G. Heft...[...]" James Dignan, 2 April 2010

In 1958, Robert Heft, a then 17 year-old high school sophomore from Ohio created our current American Flag of 50 stars. He designed the flag while in high school and submitted the design to Congress, where it was approved in 1959.

There is a page (with photo) for Robert G. Heft in Wikipedia. That page includes a link to an audio file of Robert Heft recalling how he was honoured by President Eisenhower as designer of the flag: I believe this StoryCorps story was re-broadcast on National Public Radio in the U.S. at the time of Heft's death in December 2009.
T.F. Mills, 3 April 2010

The story that Robert Heft designed the 50-star flag is urban legend. Robert was only one of many to submit the design. The U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps received 400 or so. Many, of course, were duplicates. Robert did send his design to his Congressman; the problem is Congress doesn't really have anything to do with choosing the design. The design was approved by the U.S. Quartermaster's Institute of Heraldry and ultimately the President. The U.S. Army Quartermaster Foundation website does discuss the design of both the 49-Star and 50-star flag, but does not mention Robert's submission. For example, I quote the following:

"From all of these suggestions and from a study of the history and traditions of the flag, it finally was decided to recommend arrangement of the 49 stars in seven staggered rows. After some preliminary briefings of governmental and Department of Defense officials, a presentation with charts was made to President Eisenhower on November 18, 1958. The Presidential Executive Order followed."
Colonel John D. Martz's article does not mention the 50 star flag design since its star arrangement basically continues the pattern that has been established since the Civil War, horizontal rows, either straight vertically or staggered. However, at the time, credit was given by the President and Executive department to the United States Army Institute of Heraldry for the design. See:

I also submit that I believe Mr. Heft really believes he is the designer and has spent considerable effort convincing others that he was in fact the only designer, but, in fact, his design was only one of several similar ones submitted, and no official agency has ever credited him with the design. What is currently in short evidence is any corroborating evidence, official letters of acknowledgement, anything other than that which Heft has provided. Until we have that documentation, his story must remain like that of Betsy Ross, an interesting, colorful, but unsubstantiated story. Currently, it appears he simply took the fact that since he submitted his design to his Congressman, it must be the one accepted and used.

Pete Loeser, 4 April 2010

On a personal note, I talked to Mr. Heft maybe 10-15 years ago and he certainly did believe his design was chosen. It led him to speak about patriotism and write articles as well, as a side to his insurance agency business. I also remember, as a lad of about 15, articles in national magazines in 1959 or 1960, I believe in -Look- or -Life- a representation of several possible designs for the flag, some very creative and imaginative, and exciting to a pre-vexillologist. At that age I did not understand the impossibility of interrupting tradition, especially in a country re-establishing order after World War II.
Lee Herold, 5 April 2010

I also spoke with Heft, approx. five years ago, when he first offered his flag for sale; and it was clear that he genuinely thought he was the designer. It also became clear to me that he did not understand the "process" of changing the star field and the role of the QM and TIOH (The Institute of Heraldry). The July 1959 issue of the National Geographic has an article entitled "New Stars for Old Glory". Page 99 has an image of several, some are for 50 star flags. Also, some are cloth, not paper and some appear sewn as well as painted.
Jim Ferrigan, 6 April 2010