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Mimishu1995's avatar

What do the stars on the American flag mean (details inside)

Asked by Mimishu1995 (18610points) 3 weeks ago

I already know the stars represent the states. And I already know the current flag originates from the Betty Ross flag, which contained 13 stars arranged in a circle. What I don’t know is why it has to be stars. Why can’t it be something else, like some white dots? White dots are much easier to embroider or so I thought, and they could represent the same thing.

I found this article on the net, which says “The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.” But it’s the only article on the Internet I could find that actually talks about the choice of stars, so I’m not sure if it’s accurate.

Can the US jellies help me understand this?

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24 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

I doubt that one in a million Americans could answer that question. It’s probably to be found out there somewhere, though, maybe in a biography of Betsy Ross or literature on the history of the American flag. It would not be part of a standard American education, I’m sure.

But I’ll make my guess: they’re not just stars, they’re five-pointed stars. Pentagrams. And those are an ancient and potent symbol with a considerable history. See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentagram

As I’m sure you know, pentagrams feature on the flags of many other nations as well.

I might also add that ease of doing something was not really a priority with the early Americans. They were pretty tough cookies.

Darth_Algar's avatar

I don’t know, but I’ve always assumed it’s because stars are visually striking. That or it’s a reference to celestial navigation.

@Jeruba may have it right though. The Founding Fathers were a bunch of Freemasons and Freemasons are all about symbolism.

Zaku's avatar

My school just taught us a song that said the stars were “nifty” as far as I remember. They taught us US history so many times that it started to become traumatic, so I may have blacked it out if they actually told us.

I’m guessing though it may have something to do with shining bright. ;-)

Jeruba's avatar

A star isn’t just a star, though, @Darth_Algar.

Consider the traditional rendering of the Nativity scene with the Star of Bethlehem: almost invariably it appears as a four-pointed or eight-pointed star, on Christmas cards as well as in old paintings. Sometimes it’s embellished with more points, and sometimes it deliberately echoes a cross, but seldom is it a pentagram.

And you’re not going to find very many instances of six-pointed stars, Stars of David, over Bethlehem manger scenes either, although that would be logical. Here’s one.

I do see a few Nativity images with seven-pointed stars, though, and that would be an interesting digression to explore. But it’s off topic for this question.

So I believe the use of the five-pointed star is, as you said, symbolic, and no doubt the symbolic intentions have been written about extensively by somebody.

doyendroll's avatar

Logistically quite the vexing question for vexillologists unless it’s because mullets were popular.

SavoirFaire's avatar

According to the journals of the Second Continental Congress, stars were chosen to represent a “new constellation” (which is analogous to how the Founders saw the new nation they were creating).

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JLeslie's avatar

There is story that might be true that originally a six pointed star was suggested and Betsy Ross pointed out that a 5 pointed star can be made with a few snips of the scissors if you fold the fabric correctly. So, if the story is true, it was for the ease of making the stars, which would have to be done by hand.

Growing up, I always thought of a 6 pointed star as Jewish, but of course there are 6 pointed stars used in Catholicism and you find them in places like King Ludwig’s castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, and on police badges in America, so stars of many points are used in many ways.

I think probably more today than even back at the time of the making of the original flag the 6 pointed star is associated with Judaism in America and 5 points with Christianity, even though as @Jeruba pointed out, the North Star is often shown as 4 or 8 points.

JLeslie's avatar

I started to question my memory and decided to google. Here is a link about making the stars for the flag. Honestly, the fold seems complicated, so it was either a complicated fold or a more difficult cutting process I guess. Actually, there is a fold for 6 points, many of us do it for making snowflakes as children, although I guess more room for the stars to be different sizes. https://www.ushistory.org/betsy/flagstar.html

I also googled possible bias on the website. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_Hall_Association

LostInParadise's avatar

I did a Web search to see if there are other countries with stars on their flags. There are quite a few, though the U.S. has the most.

kritiper's avatar

There are 50 states in the United States, 50 stars on the flag, and each star represents a state.
Before Hawaii and Alaska came into the union, there were 48 stars which were arranged in 8 equal columns of 6 stars, or, 6–6-6–6-6–6-6–6.
After Hawaii and Alaska joined there were staggered columns of stars, 5 of 6 stars each separated by 4 of 5 stars, or 6–5-6–5-6–5-6–5-6.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@kritiper I already know that. I just want to know why they chose stars to represent the states.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@SavoirFaire I think that explains the choice of symbols better for someone who isn’t from the US. So do you think the article I found is accurate?

kritiper's avatar

@Mimishu1995 Stars on a blue field would look better than polka dots. Each state shines like a star in the night sky.

smudges's avatar

Did Betsy Ross really sew the first American flag? There’s no proof that she didn’t, but no proof that she did, either.

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/64535/betsy-ross-probably-didnt-sew-first-flag

kritiper's avatar

“Stars and stripes” sounds so much better than anything else and stripes.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@kritiper the dot is just an example. What I mean is why they chose the stars, specifically, and not any other symbol. I want to know if there is any significant meaning to the stars that is worthy of representing an entire nation’s philosophy.

kritiper's avatar

@Mimishu1995 Each state is like a small individual country unto itself, so any star only represents that one state, and has nothing to do with the philosophy of the country as a whole. Any other symbol would not be as easy to construct, sew, or be viewed any differently. There are stars in the sky (a blue field) and no other symbol would be as symbolic of each state’s individuality as much as a star does. What other symbol could be as worthy as, or more worthy, than a star?

Yellowdog's avatar

Stars are suns. The suns are the suns of liberty : }

JLeslie's avatar

I wonder if it had to do with using the stars as navigation to the new world? Just a guess.

Jeruba's avatar

@JLeslie, police badges have stars of different configurations. Many have seven-pointed stars, the odd point at the bottom and two on top.

I’ve always thought that star-folding thing was apocryphal, like something for a children’s activity magazine. Weren’t the original flag stars embroidered?

JLeslie's avatar

@Jeruba Yes, I too see police badges in many different configurations. I remember the first time I noticed a 6 point I was surprised. I was very young.

Great question about the embroidery. That seems logical to me. That link I posted made it sound like the stars were cut from fabric and sewn on. There must be original flags on display from that time that would answer this question.

In my googling I did come across the wikipedia for Betsy Ross and it is an interesting read for anyone who wants to take a look.

Seems there were several people making flags back then. From the wikipedia link: Betsy was an upholsterer by trade who produced uniforms, tents, and flags for Continental forces. Although her manufacturing contributions are documented, a popular story evolved in which Ross was hired by a group of founding fathers to make a new U.S. flag. According to the legend, she deviated from the 6-pointed stars in the design and produced a flag with 5-pointed stars, instead. The claim by her descendants that Betsy Ross contributed to the flag’s design is not generally accepted by modern American scholars and vexillologists.

snowberry's avatar

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Star-of-David
According to this passage, the Star of David didn’t become in popular use as a “Jewish” symbol until the 19th century, long after the creation of the American Flag. It was a shape, like the pentagram. They might have chosen triangles, circles, trees, or whatever. But they chose a 5 pointed star. It may or may not have had significance to them as an occult symbol (I’d like to remind you that the Nazi swastica was originally a religious symbol of luck prosperity, etc. in many cultures. Now, although it’s still in use in Asian cultures as it always has been, to those of us in the West, it’s a symbol of evil). https://www.historicmysteries.com/history-swastika-symbol/

My point is that the meaning of symbols can change over time, and exactly why someone chooses one shape over another isn’t always clear.

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