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America has come a long way since its birth as a nation in 1776. But just as the country has evolved throughout the years, so has Old Glory. From the arrangement of those iconic stars and stripes to the materials and colorants used in its construction, the American flag has changed considerably since George Washington commissioned its creation (as legend has it, from Betsy Ross), according to Barbara Gatewood, professor emeritus of textile science at Kansas State University. Today’s flags are made with polyester and nylon, along with synthetic dyes and pigments manufactured primarily from petrochemicals, Gatewood says, but it wasn’t always so.
Although the first Americans preferred a wool bunting fabric, then produced in England, because it resisted fading and unfurled better in the wind, Gatewood says that many homemade flags at the time comprised the more readily available cotton. Linen was less desirable, although it was often employed to make the stars or to stitch the flags because of its strength, while silk was as much a luxury then as it is now. “Flags made from silk were more expensive, and thus were used in flags for military purposes and special occasions,” Gatewood adds.
Early Americans used natural dyes to create the flag’s signature red stripes and blue canton.
Perkin’s mauve, the first synthetic dye, wasn’t developed until 1856, so early Americans used natural vegetable- and insect-based dyes to create the flag’s signature red stripes and blue canton.
“Undyed and sometimes bleached fabrics were used for the white portions of the flag,” she says. “The red dye was usually obtained from the root of the madder plant, which, ironically, was also used to produce the British Army’s famous red coats, or from the female cochineal, a tiny insect that lives on specific cactus plants. The primary sources for blue dye were woad and indigo, two plants that contain blue dye in their leaves.”
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law requiring that the federal government purchase flag bunting only from American manufacturers, putting an end to the use of the aforementioned English-produced wool bunting material in government flags.
While American manufacturers still make up the bulk of the flag-making business today, foreign-produced flags are a growing reality. In fact, 94 percent or $3.6 million worth of star-spangled banners imported into the United States in 2012 originated in China, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
To counter that disconnect, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to change a law that allows the federal government to purchase flags made of only 50 percent American materials. In June 2013, Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA) reintroduced the “All-American Flag Act” to ensure that the government buys only U.S.-manufactured flags made of 100 percent American-made materials.
“It’s simple—Americans’ tax dollars should be used to purchase flags made in the U.S.A.,” says Braley, who first proposed the legislation in 2010. “Allowing the government to purchase flags from foreign countries is embarrassing to America’s greatest symbol. There are many companies here in the U.S. that proudly manufacture American flags, and the government should be purchasing flags from them, supporting American-made products, not importing flags from China.”
Originally published on July 4, 2013.