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Why are there 52 stars on the American flag?

The American flag is one of the most iconic national symbols in the world. Its classic red, white and blue design is globally recognized as representing the United States of America. An interesting feature of the American flag is the 50 stars displayed on a blue canton in the upper left corner. These stars represent the 50 states that comprise the United States. But this wasn’t always the case.

The Evolution of the American Flag

The American flag has undergone 27 official versions since the first flag was created for the new nation in 1777. Each version has reflected the changing number of U.S. states from the original 13 colonies up to the current 50 states. Here is a brief history of the major changes to the American flag over time:

  • The first official national flag, the Continental Colors or Grand Union Flag, was raised at Cambridge, Massachusetts in January 1776 during the American Revolutionary War. This flag consisted of 13 alternating red and white stripes representing the Thirteen Colonies, with the British Union Jack in the canton.
  • On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act creating the official flag of the United States. This flag contained 13 stars on a blue canton, representing the original 13 colonies. It was nicknamed the “Betsy Ross Flag.”
  • In 1794, Congress enacted the second Flag Act. It provided for 15 stripes as well as 15 stars, reflecting the addition of Vermont and Kentucky to the Union.
  • Realizing the flag would become unwieldy with more states, Congress passed the third Flag Act in 1818. It dictated 13 stripes for the original colonies and one star for each state. New stars would be added on the July 4 after each state was admitted.
  • Over the decades, more stars were added as states joined the Union, up to the current 50 stars. Hawaii was the last state added in 1959.

As more states entered the Union, the American flag evolved to represent the growth of the country. The 50 stars we see today symbolize the 50 individual U.S. states stretching across North America.

The Meaning Behind the 52 Stars

So with 50 states currently in the Union, why are there 52 stars on some American flags? The reasons are rooted in history and efforts to honor the nation’s capital.

Here are the key reasons behind the 52-star flag:

  • Early flags showed stars for territories seeking statehood: Some 19th century American flags temporarily displayed stars representing territories like the Alabama Territory or Oregon Territory before they became official states. Once the territories gained statehood, the stars were incorporated into the official flag.
  • Washington D.C. pushes for representation: Today Washington D.C. is a federal district and does not have voting representation in Congress. The “Washington, D.C. Admission Act” bills propose making D.C. the 51st state. Some flags add a 51st star to support D.C. statehood.
  • Puerto Rico considers statehood: Puerto Rico is currently a U.S. territory. The “Puerto Rico Admission Act” bills propose making it the 51st or 52nd state. Flags with 52 or 53 stars show support for Puerto Rican statehood.
  • Arts & activism: Artists and activists sometimes add unofficial stars to represent desired changes. For example, in 2003 Chinese American artists added a star to protest China’s exclusion from the Transcontinental Railroad celebration.

While not official, 52-star flags demonstrate hope for greater representation. The extra stars symbolize American citizens in U.S. territories or districts seeking equal voting rights and statehood.

Table of U.S. Flag Designs Over Time

Here is a table summarizing the evolution of the American flag from 1777 to today:

Version Year Number of Stars Number of Stripes Notes
1st Flag (Continental Colors) 1776 No stars 13 First unofficial flag
Betsy Ross flag 1777 13 13 First official flag
15 Star Flag 1795 15 15 Reflected Vermont and Kentucky joining
20 Star Flag 1818 20 13 New stars for more states added
48 Star Flag 1912 48 13 Standard version from 1912-1959
49 Star Flag 1959 49 13 Added star for Alaska
Current 50 Star Flag 1960-Today 50 13 Hawaii added as 50th state

As this summary shows, the flag evolved from the first 13-star version to today’s 50-star American flag. The current flag has remained unchanged since Hawaii joined in 1959.

How New States Get Added

Since 1818, a new star has been added to the flag on July 4 following each state’s admission to the Union. This honors the new state and preserves symbolism of the original 13 colonies.

Adding a state is a complex federal process that requires:

  • An Enabling Act passed by Congress approving statehood
  • The territory writing and ratifying a State Constitution
  • Congress passing legislation officially admitting the state
  • The president signing the admission legislation

Once the process is complete, the new state is officially admitted. Then, a new 51-star or 52-star flag gets designed and produced to include the additional state. So if a new state joins in 2025, we’ll see a 51 or 52-star flag sometime around July 4, 2025.

The Last Time the Flag Changed

The last time the American flag changed was over 60 years ago on July 4, 1960 after Hawaii gained statehood.

Hawaii was formally admitted to the Union on August 21, 1959 after Congress approved the Hawaii Admission Act. The act specified that the new 50-star flag design would be officially adopted on Independence Day 1960. So on July 4, 1960, the new 50-star flag made its nationwide debut.

The executive order proclaiming Hawaii’s statehood and changing the flag stated:

“I direct that the flag of the United States be changed to add a new star representing the new State admitted into the Union July 4, 1960, by the admission of the State of Hawaii.”

Since then, the American flag has maintained the iconic 50-star look we all recognize today. For the last 58 years, no new states have been added.

When Will the Flag Change Again?

For the flag to change again, a new state would need to be admitted to the United States. There are a few possibilities on the horizon:

  • Washington, D.C. – DC has pushed for statehood for decades. If the Washington, D.C. Admission Act was passed, the 51-star flag could debut on July 4th a couple years later.
  • Puerto Rico – Puerto Rico has considered becoming the 51st or 52nd state for many years. If the Puerto Rico Admission Act gained approval, it could prompt a 51 or 52-star flag by July 4th.
  • Partitioned California – There are occasional proposals to split California into 2 or 3 separate states. This could add 1 or 2 new stars to the flag if it ever occurred and was approved by Congress.

However, there are no near-term drivers that make changes to the American flag imminent. Barring any major developments with statehood, the 50-star banner will likely continue waving over the United States for years to come.

Does American Samoa or Other Territories Add a Star?

Places like American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands are U.S. territories but not states. So do they get their own star on the flag?

The answer is no. The U.S flag only includes stars representing official U.S. states that have been admitted through the federal statehood process. Simply being a U.S. territory does not qualify that place for a star.

For example, American Samoa has been an unincorporated U.S. territory since 1900. But as American Samoa has not gone through the steps of ratifying its own Constitution and being accepted into statehood, it does not warrant its own star on the flag.

If current U.S. territories eventually gain statehood, they would then earn a star. But the path to statehood is often long and complex due to political hurdles.

Making the First Flags

When a new American flag design debuts, Flag Day on June 14 is often selected for its first national raising. After extensive planning and preparations, the new flags are mass produced.

Here is the process of making the first set of new American flags with updated stars:

  1. The government carefully specifies the new flag design legally codifying the arrangement of stars and stripes.
  2. The government selects flag manufacturers to produce the new design.
  3. These flag makers create new tooling and loom set-ups specifically for the new flag specifications.
  4. They source high-quality fabrics, threads, adhesives and other materials to construct the flags.
  5. Skilled seamstresses meticulously cut and sew together the components for each flag.
  6. The finished flags are inspected for quality and accuracy against the approved design.
  7. Accepted flags are packaged and distributed nationally in time for the new design’s official Flag Day unveiling.

Producing the first set of updated American flags is a major endeavor. But the dedicated flag makers swiftly prepare the new banners in patriotic excitement.

The Largest American Flags

While most American flags are standard sizes for displaying on homes, businesses or poles, some giant U.S. flags have also been created. Here are some of the largest American flags to fly:

  • The “Superflag” created in the 1990s is 505 feet by 225 feet. It weighs 3,000 pounds!
  • The largest flying flag was raised in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 2019 measuring 144 feet by 266 feet and weighing 2,000 pounds.
  • The University of Central Florida has an enormous flag at 77 feet by 160 feet on poles 177 feet high.
  • Acuity Insurance displays a 70-foot by 140-foot American flag using 25 miles of thread at their Sheboygan headquarters.

These colossal American flags require extensive rigging, reinforcement and maintenance. But they make eye-catching patriotic displays. Their giant dimensions don’t detract from the inherent symbolism and meaning of the stars and stripes.

The American Flag on the Moon

One fascinating historic event was astronauts planting the American flag on the moon. During the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin unfurled and inserted a specially made U.S. flag into the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

However, due to the lack of wind on the airless moon, the flag appears frozen in photos rather than waving. Technical insights on displaying the flag on the moon included:

  • The nylon lunar flag was specially made by Annin Flagmakers to withstand the harsh space environment.
  • A horizontal crossbar supported the flag to give it the appearance of flying despite the lack of wind.
  • The flag cost $5.50 in 1969 and was purchased off the shelf by a NASA engineer.
  • Five other Apollo missions left U.S. flags standing on the moon from Apollo 12 through Apollo 17.

The iconic photos of the American flag on the moon represent a powerful human achievement. Planting these flags expanded symbolic ownership beyond Earth for the first time.

Folding the American Flag

Over time, detailed procedures developed on the proper way to fold the American flag. The traditional triangular fold method follows strict steps to neatly fold the flag 12 times into a triangle.

Here are the basics to properly fold the American flag:

  1. Two people stand on either side of the flag, holding the corners and edges.
  2. Fold the flag in half lengthwise so the union (stars) is on the outside.
  3. Fold it in half lengthwise again.
  4. Starting at the striped end, make a triangular fold by bringing the striped corner to meet the union.
  5. Continue triangular folding until the entire length is folded into a triangle.
  6. Tuck in any loose edges to create a clean triangle.

The triangular folded flag is seen on ceremonious occasions like flag retirements and veteran events. The triangle represents the tricorne hats worn during the American Revolution.


The American flag’s unique design has evolved across two centuries to reflect the growth of the United States. The current 50-star flag has emerged from numerous earlier versions to become an enduring national emblem.

While unofficial 52-star flags are sometimes created, the 50-star banner will likely remain the standard for the foreseeable future. But if the nation did expand again, flag makers stand ready to stitch new intricate 51 or 52-star flags for Independence Day unveiling.

Regardless of the number of stars and stripes, the American flag will continue to fly high as a unifying symbol of democracy, freedom and national identity.