The first call to make June 14 a national Flag Day holiday came in 1861. On June 8, Charles Dudley Warner, the editor of the Hartford Evening Press, wrote an editorial calling for two new American holidays, Constitution Day on September 17 and Flag Day on June 14. Flag Day would commemorate the day in 1777 that the Second Continental Congress enacted the first Flag Resolution, which called for the flag of the United States to have thirteen white stars in a blue field (“representing a new constellation”) and thirteen alternating red and white stripes.
Flags flew in Connecticut on June 14, 1861, and there was a flurry of media interest north of the Mason-Dixon line. But Warner’s idea soon faded away.
On the hundredth anniversary of the first Flag Resolution, June 14, 1877, several notable Flag Day ceremonies took place around the nation. In Boston, for example, the original Star-Spangled Banner was displayed at the Old South Meeting House. But once again, the idea did not take hold nationwide.
Then in 1885, Bernard John (B.J.) Cigrand, a 19-year-old teacher at a one-room Schoolhouse in Waubeka, Wisconsin, set in motion a series of events that would culminate in a nationwide Flag Day.
Cigrand, the son of immigrants from Luxembourg, kept a small American flag in his classroom. On June 14, 1885, he asked his students to write an essay about what the flag meant to them. The exercises he held that day in the classroom in Waubeka—about midway between Chicago and Green Bay—are generally recognized as the nation’s first formal Flag Day observance.
That act set Cigrand on a long quest to lobby for the creation of a national Flag Day holiday, which he initially called Flag Birthday. Beginning with “The Fourteenth of June,” an article he wrote in June 1886 in the Chicago newspaper Argus, Cigrand penned countless newspaper and magazine articles and pamphlets arguing for the holiday. He also wrote several books and made hundreds of speeches espousing his Flag Day cause.
B.J. Cigrand left teaching to attend dental school, receiving his degree from the University Dental College in Chicago in 1888. He practiced dentistry in Aurora, Illinois, and was a Professor of Prosthetic Dentistry and president of the American College of Dental Surgery. But lobbying on behalf of Flag Day remained Cigrand’s passion throughout his life.
Beginning in the early 1890s Cigrand’s flag celebration idea began to take hold in many cites and towns. In 1894, Cigrand’s missionary work on behalf of Flag Day—which included helping found the Illinois Flag Day Association and the National Flag Day Association—resulted in its first big success in Chicago. On June 14, some 300,000 schoolchildren took party in city-wide Flag Day activities held in five parks, the first public school celebration of its kind.
That same year New York Governor Roswell P. Flower signed an order directing that all public buildings in the Empire State display the flag on June 14. With that, the Flag Day concept began to spread around the nation.
Veterans and patriotic groups such as the Sons of the American Revolution, the Society of Colonial Dames, and the Daughters of the American Revolution played a large part in lobbying for Cigrand’s cause. The Grand Army of the Republic, the nation’s most influential veterans service organization, initially did not support a June 14 Flag Day holiday. The group’s leadership believed that the date was too close to Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. But sentiment for Flag Day began to grow within the organization, and in its sister group, the Woman’s Relief Crops, which supported the work of Cigrand’s American Flag Association.
In 1891, the New York State Board of Education mandated that all public schools observe June 14 with ceremonies. The Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia held a Flag Day celebration that same year on June 14. Over the next twenty-five years many states and localities officially celebrated Flag Day.
In Michigan, for example, the legislature approved a Flag Day resolution in 1901. The state’s governor, Aaron T. Bliss, issued a proclamation designating June 14, 1902, as Flag Day in Michigan. “The breezes stealing in from the Great Lakes and the rising sun should find Old Glory waving from every home, from every schoolhouse, from every church and every public building,” the governor proclaimed.
Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 Proclamation
Less than two years later, on May 30, 1916, as it became increasingly likely that America would soon be fighting in the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson established Flag Day through a presidential proclamation. Wilson made a Flag Day speech on June 14 near the Washington Monument after having led a flag-saturated preparedness parade in which some 66,000 people marched from the Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Wilson himself carried the Stars and Stripes at the head of the parade.
“I regard this day as a day of rededication to all the ideals of the United States,” Wilson said. “As I see the winds lovingly unfold the beautiful lines of our great flag, I shall seem to see a hand point the way of duty, no matter how hard, no matter how long, which we shall tread while we vindicate the glory and honor of the United States.”
Wilson did not make Flag Day a legal public holiday, however; nor has any President done so since then. Only Pennsylvania, which took action in 1937, has chosen to make June 14 a legal state holiday.
But even though it’s not an official national public holiday, the day has been observed nationwide since Wilson’s proclamation. On August 3, 1949, President Harry Truman signed into law a resolution passed by Congress designating June 14th of each year National Flag Day. That measure also calls upon the President to issue an annual proclamation calling for a Flag Day observance and for the display of the flag on all federal government buildings. In 1966, Congress passed a Joint Resolution asking the president to issue an annual National Flag Week proclamation as well, and to call on American citizens to display the flag during the entire week in which June 14 falls.
Every year since then our Presidents have made Flag Day and Flag Week Proclamations, directing U.S. government officials to fly the flag on all federal buildings and asking all Americans, as President Ronald Reagan put it in his 1981 Flag Day Proclamation, to fly the flag “from their porches, windows and storefronts.”
In his 2013 Flag Day/Flag Week message, President Obama said: “Let us raise our flags high, from small-town storefronts to duty stations stretched around the globe, and let us look to them once more as we press on in the march toward a more perfect Union.”
(This post is adapted from journalist and historian Marc Leepson’s Flag: An American Biography (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2005), a history of the American flag from the beginnings to the 21st century.)