After learning about Betsy Ross, you probably didn’t give much thought to how the subsequent U.S flags were designed. It might seem like a no-brainer; flagmakers just added a new star for every new state, right?
Well, turns out it’s not that simple. Each new flag has a very careful design, and the arrangement of the stars must be precise and symmetrical. And for the flag we know today, that arrangement was designed by a high schooler—before Alaska and Hawaii were even states. (These gorgeous American flag photos are sure to make you feel patriotic.)
In 2009, the designer, Bob Heft, told his tale to StoryCorps. It was 1958, and America only contained 48 United States. The flag at that time featured six rows of eight stars. Heft’s history teacher assigned a class project where each student had to bring in something they made. Having been “inspired by the Betsy Ross story,” and hearing rumblings that Alaska and Hawaii could both soon gain statehood, Heft decided to make a 50-star flag. So he made some adjustments to his parents’ 48-star flag, brought it in, and triumphantly placed it on his teacher’s desk.
His teacher, however, was not impressed. Heft remembers him asking why it had extra stars, chiding, “You don’t even know how many states we have.” Heft’s teacher gave the project a B minus.
But Heft protested the low grade. He told StoryCorps that for each new flag, “The [goal] is to add [stars] so no one can tell there’s a change in the design.” And he felt that his design, with five rows of six stars and four rows of five, did that perfectly. His teacher told him, “If you don’t like your grade, get it accepted into Washington, then come back…and I might consider changing your grade.”
Heft heartily accepted the challenge. He spent the next two years making calls and writing letters to the White House. He even reached out to one of his state representatives, Walter H. Moeller from Ohio, who advocated for Heft’s design. During this time, Alaska became the 49th state, and a 49-star flag briefly flew. After Hawaii gained statehood as well, Heft got the call he’d been hoping for. President Eisenhower told him that his flag design had been chosen out of over a thousand. On July 4th, 1960, Heft went to the White House to see his school project design become the official American flag. In 2007, the 50-star flag became the longest-running U.S. flag. And, yes, his teacher did update his grade to an A.
And Heft didn’t stop there! After his 50-star design got accepted, he decided to keep ahead of the times by designing a 51-star flag as well. Sadly, he passed away in 2009, but he gave his 51-star design to a state representative just in case. And if the speculation about Washington, DC or Puerto Rico gaining statehood proves true, that flag might be put to use too! This would make Heft the only person to design two United States flags. Sorry, Betsy Ross! (That is, if she actually was the one who designed the original U.S. flag.)