Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why Does the US Flag have Stars with Five Points?

Here is a good Independence Day research question to give your middle schooler:  Why does the flag of the United States have five-pointed stars?  If s/he figures it out, please ask her/him to put it into the comments, because I couldn't find a definite answer.

The most prominent idea you will find is that Betsy Ross talked George Washington, who sketched six-pointed stars in his preliminary sketch that has been preserved, into using five-pointed stars because they were easier to cut and sew.  Which is a great story, except that many more respectable sources say that it isn't true--or, at least, we have no physical evidence to suggest that it is true, let alone to prove that it is true.    So, for example, see the interesting article in the Washington Post on "Five Myths About the American Flag," which talks about this matter and other things that people generally believe about the US flag, which turn out, inconveniently, to be false or at least not to be supported by evidence.

However, most sources that I've read seem to agree that it was the six-pointed star that was commonly used at that time.  So at least some suggest that the Americans used a five-pointed star simply to distinguish themselves from the European history of six-point stars for flags and crests and such.  But, again, as far as I can tell, that is merely conjecture that is not based on any evidence.  And according to "Five Myths About the American Flag," the prevailing theory about the fact that our flag is red, white, and blue is that it was based on Continental Army flags, which were based on the English flag--which kind of argues against the "five points to be different"argument.  But maybe they wanted some symbols taken from our history and some marks of differentiation?

Isn't it interesting that we don't really know the derivation of one of the most important symbols of our country?


  1. If it were happening today, the founding persons would all be blogging about their number-of-star-points decisions, aggregating comments on colors through Google Forms, and having long threads debating the symbolism on Facebook.

    Someone can dig through my Friend Feed and find this comment where I tell you that Dmitri came up with a perfect flag for our entity. Our flag is completely transparent. It symbolizes the openness and the all-encompassing nature of the entity. And, even more importantly, it makes everybody laugh. Win-win!

  2. Not necessarily. They kept a pretty tight lid on things when discussing the Declaration of Independence and subsequent business of the fledgling nation, because they knew they could be hung for treason by the British if discovered and caught. And during the Constitutional Convention, they were so anxious about rumors about the deliberations getting out that they nailed the windows shut, even though it was in the upper 90's or 100's during the summer session!

    But I would love to see you flag!

  3. A five-point star is the simplest polygon that can be made by connecting vertices of another polygon. So the star symbolizes how all the people of the United States are connected to one another, and how that connection forms further connections, and so on...It is only 5 points, and not 6 (like it used to be) because we Americans like to find the most efficient and simplest way of communicating a meaning.

  4. Because... unfortunately... O' GW was a heathen!