Tuesday, August 5, 2008


United States, 2008
Flags 24/7

On April 18, 2008, the United States Postal Service issued a new set of definitive stamps featuring beautiful paintings of an American Flag flying in the breeze. The images, captured at different times of the day show the flag flying at sunrise, at midday, at sunset, and at night. The set is identified on the US Postal Service website as "Flags 24/7" and is available in coil form in either self-adhesive or water-activated ("lick 'em and stick 'em") variety.

The stamp series seems destined to become the workhorse patriotic stamp issue of the U.S. Postal Service, as the prior flag definitive American flag designs have yet to be re-released with the current postal rate of 42 cents (US). If this is the case, there will be millions of these stamps issued in the upcoming months and years. That is, unless the U.S. Postal Service corrects what appears to be an error on one of the stamps.

Close examination of the "evening" stamp, located in the lower-right quadrant of the official design featured on the U.S.P.S. website, reveals that the stamp apparently has one too many stripes.

"Evening" Flag Stamp

This stamp uses an image of an approximately half-full moon on a dark-blue sky as a way of denoting that the flag is visible in the evening.

A few collectors have pointed out that the flag does not appear to be illuminated, which is normal flag etiquette for nighttime display of the American flag. However, since the sky is dark blue and not black, others have argued that it is evening and not nighttime in the image. Regardless of this point of contention, a better point of discussion is whether the flag, as depicted, is an officially supported design.

Here is a little background for those who may be unfamiliar with the United States flag.

The American flag currently consists of a field of blue, called a canton, in which there are 50 white stars, each representing a state in the union. The remainder of the flag consists of 13 alternating red and white stripes, each representing the 13 original states ("colonies") that existed when the nation was born.

The design of the American flag is dynamic and its layout has changed several times since its introduction. Because the flag represents states in the union, every addition of a new state to the union required a new flag design. In the early days of the country, keeping the flag design up to date was not the top-most priority, so sometimes a few years elapsed before the flag was officially redesigned. However, in the last century, changes to the flag design are more in keeping with current events.

United States Flag Layout
per Executive Order 10834

Shortly after the addition of Hawaii as the nation's 50th and last state, the American flag design was changed from it's prior, and very short-lived, design with 49 stars, to include a 50th star. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10834 on Aug. 21, 1959 to prescribe the new design of the flag that was to be required in public use by July 4, 1960, the subsequent Independence Day holiday for the United States.

Because a flag can exist in various physical sizes, Executive Order 10834 published a detailed drawing of the design and included a table of proportional sizes that were to be used to create the official flag. By following the ratios prescribed by the Order, a very precise flag layout can be created.

One of the key elements of the American flag's design revolves around the use of the red and white stripes, representing the founding colonies. For the past 190 years, the flag has always consisted of 13 red and white stripes in a specific pattern. There are 7 red stripes and 6 white stripes. Because of the odd number of red stripes, and the interleaving of the colors, red stripes appear on the top and bottom of the flag.

Enlargement of Lower-Left Quadrant
Notice stripe colors below blue field

The size of the blue canton is such that exactly 7 alternating stripes run to the left of the canton. Because the top stripe is always red, the seventh stripe, the bottom of which lines up with the bottom of the blue field, is also red. The next stripe down would then have to be white. This stripe has the distinction of being the first stripe (from the top), that spans the full width of the flag.

It is this stripe which provides the vital clue as to the design error. The blue field rests above this long white stripe. If you counted from the top, this first long white stripe, is stripe number 8.

In the magnified view of the stamp image, there are 6 more stripes visible, before the image is clipped off. The small area located in the lower-left corner of the design is clearly white. By counting the stripes below the blue canton, starting with the white stripe (number 8) it is very evident that there is a 14th stripe and it is white.

This raises an even further design issue ... if the flag was bounded by red stripes as the top-most and bottom-most stripes, which every flag issued by the United States since the founding of the country in 1776 has been, it would leave one to think that the flag on the stamp, if it followed the usual red stripe convention, would actually have had 15 stripes!

Will the United States Postal Service clear up this design error? It is likely that they will be forced to change it, once the general public is more aware of this error.

If the stamp design is changed, the current design, issued in a much smaller quantity than originally planned, may possibly increasing its value. Only time will tell.