A History of the American Flag's Nicknames--from Stars and Stripes to Old Glory
The American flag has changed substantially since it debuted in 1775. The Grand Union Flag was replaced by the contemporary American flag in 1777, and during the following two and a half centuries, 37 new states joined the Union; in turn, 37 new stars joined the flag. What's more is that these states and stars accompanied a number of diverse and exciting changes, both in America and the world--changes that eclipsed those brought forth by each of these preceding centuries.
With all this in mind, it should make sense that as America and the American flag have changed, so too has its design and nicknames.
To provide historical insight and chart the evolution of the American flag, the following text describes the names it's received through the centuries--and how these names came to be.
Stars and Stripes--Circa 1780
Stars and Stripes was adopted as a nickname for the American flag shortly after the Declaration of Independence's signing, but the precise date is unclear. Similarly, the name's creator has been a matter of some debate among historians; the title is generally credited to Marquis de Lafayette, a native of France who rallied behind the American battle for democracy.
Lafayette, sailing on a ship he'd bought with his personal funds, arrived in America in 1777, intending to fight alongside American troops. He was ultimately recognized for his valuable services and commitment to defeating the British; he also became a close friend of several Founding Fathers, especially George Washington, who he (Lafayette) named his son after.
Lafayette noted that the alternating stripes of the American flag were perhaps their greatest quality, in terms of departing from other flag designs and signifying danger to British troops. He affectionately referred to the flag itself as "stars and stripes." The name caught on and was widely adopted by citizens across the country.
The Star-Spangled Banner/Great Garrison Flag--1814
The Star-Spangled Banner emerged as a synonym for the American flag during the War of 1812. (At the time, the American flag consisted of 15 stripes and 15 stars, though in later variations, the former would revert back to 13, in honor of the 13 original colonies, while the latter would increase relative to the number of states in the Union.)
So that the rise of the Star-Spangled Banner can be adequately described, a bit of background is in order. The British stormed America in 1812, committed to regaining control of their former colony. These well-trained and well-equipped troops inflicted considerable damage on the unprepared nation, going as far as burning down the White House. (Thankfully, Dolly Madison was brave and thoughtful enough to preserve a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a portrait of George Washington, even as British troops were just miles away.)
In 1814, Francis Scott Key was imprisoned on a British warship when 5,000 enemy troops, arriving on 19 ships, attempted to capture Baltimore and its most valuable defensive position, Fort McHenry. (Key, being quite far from Fort McHenry, watched the battle unfold from a distance.) After conducting a general assault on September 12th, the British channeled their attacks on Fort McHenry; for 25 consecutive hours, rain and shells fell upon the base. But on the morning of September 14th, Key awoke and found that the rain--and the shelling--had ceased, and that the American flag was still raised over Fort McHenry.
The remarkable U.S. victory, in the face of immensely tall odds, inspired Key to craft a poem, "Defence of Fort M'Henry," which recounted the scene. Nearly a century later, during Herbert Hoover's administration, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was officially adopted as the national anthem. The Star-Spangled Banner has survived through the ages and is currently on display at the National Museum of American History.
The story of how Old Glory became a name for the American flag is a simple one, and to be sure, that's a big part of its appeal.
In 1831, William Driver, a Salem-based ship captain, was preparing to embark his boat, the Charles Doggett, on yet another voyage. Before Driver departed, his friends gifted him a large, 24-starred American flag. The flag was installed and unfurled at the ship's front, and Driver's patriotism and love of his county prompted him to erupt, "Old Glory!" as it fluttered in the ocean breeze.
Driver believed that Old Glory protected him, his crew, and his ship from danger, and he may very well have been right. Despite the inherent risk associated with exploring the seas (especially in the 19th century), he recorded a long, successful, and safe career. Word of Old Glory--the name and the flag--spread from the decks of the Charles Doggett and through America.
Driver retired to Tennessee and, during the Civil War, risked his life to protect Old Glory from the Confederate soldiers who wished to destroy it, going as far as sewing it into his bed. Today, Old Glory can be found on display at the National Museum of American History.