“Oh, Say Can You See”
Many of us know about the current controversies over the National Anthem and honoring the flag of the United States.
But where did our patriotic rituals and traditions come from?
Much of the credit goes to The Youth’s Companion, starting over 125 years ago.
Saluting the schoolhouse flag
The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag was written in 1892 as part of the National School Celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.
It was the culmination of a campaign by James Upham called “Raise the Schoolhouse Flag”—an effort to get an American flag in every schoolhouse in the United States, sponsored by The Youth’s Companion.
By the time the Pledge was written by Francis Bellamy, who also worked for The Youth’s Companion, the flag had been raised in some 30,000 schools, from Maine to California.
James Upham believed that the schoolhouse flag would teach children, love of country, at a time when new immigrants were flooding the schools, and some politicians were advocating putting global interests above those of the nation.
In all this seething uncertainty, old-fashioned patriotism was having a bad time; it seemed to have lost its dominance.
The scattered efforts of several patriotic organizations to stir up love for the flag as the sign of nationalism often were “damned by faint praise.”
The writer vividly recalls a typical editorial of that period in the mugwump Boston Herald entitled, “The Worship of a Textile Fabric.”
That editorial, however, had a far different effect than intended, for it roused the peaceful James B. Upham to a grim determination to make the school children of the country understand that their country was first of all and that the flag was worthy of their highest love.
It is interesting to note that from the beginning, there was disagreement about whether honoring the flag was just “the worship of a textile fabric,” or that the flag was worthy of our highest love.
For Upham, Bellamy, and the staff of The Youth’s Companion, there was no doubt.
They began an effort to inspire and foster patriotism, as well as a love of the American flag, that the magazine continued as long as it was published.
How did The Youth’s Companion inspire and foster patriotism?
Having the flag in the public schools and creating a Pledge of Allegiance ceremony was just the beginning.
By 1892, The Youth’s Companion had become an influential weekly magazine that was read aloud by families in over 500,000 homes.
It contained a wide range of fictional stories, poems, articles on current events, feature stories on a variety of topics, and activities for children.
There was also a significant amount of content that was geared toward instilling values in children and young people—including love of country.
Reading The Youth’s Companions from 100 years ago, we can gain insight into what values were considered important to pass on to the next generation.
One way they fostered patriotism was through stories.
“Marnie and the Flag,” by Winifred Arnold is an excellent example.
This the story of nine-year-old Marnie Evans, who was upset because two of her classmates were giggling during the daily salute of the flag.
After school, she confronted one of the offending boys, John Grover, who was a neighbor.
She accused him of being a traitor.
The problem was that there was no flag in the classroom, and John thought it was funny to be saluting the blackboard and pretending it was the flag.
Marnie was astonished.
“Why, John Grover,” cried Marnie, “do you mean – why, it is there! I mean it’s just the same as there. Don’t you see?” She stopped helplessly. “Why, when I salute or when I sing The Star-Spangled Banner, I do see it – not a real one, of course, but something up in the air, bigger and lovelier than any flag I ever saw – almost. And that’s what I salute. O John, don’t you understand?”
Predictably, John did not understand.
Marnie had to come to grips with the reality caused by the lack of a flag to salute, and she figured out a way to get one for her schoolroom.
This story appeared in the June 14, 1917 issue of The Youth’s Companion, which happened to be Flag Day.
Flag Day was a new patriotic event, created by a proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson on May 30, 1916.
The date of June 14th was chosen as Flag Day in remembrance of the June 14, 1777 day when the flag became a symbol of the new nation.
It is the anniversary of the day upon which the flag of the United States was adopted by the Congress as the emblem of the Union.
The President urged that Americans rededicate themselves to the United States as “one and inseparable.”
On that day, we should stand with united hearts and remember our forefathers’ vows of independence, liberty, and right, Wilson stated.
In addition to “Marnie and the Flag,” there was other patriotic content in the July 14, 1917 issue of The Youth’s Companion.
On the Children’s Page, there was a poem called “The Boy and the Flag” by John Clair Minot about what the flag represents, and the duty to honor and protect—or even die for—it:
There was a news item about how Massachusetts had changed a law banning the publication of pictures of the flag:
For several years the Massachusetts law that aims to prevent disrespect to the flag has been so sweeping and stringent that it has been illegal for publishers of newspapers, magazines or books to print a picture of the flag under any conditions whatever.
We know that our readers will rejoice with us in the amended Massachusetts law that allows The Companion, without becoming a lawbreaker, to have pictures of the American flag on its pages once more.
Perhaps this helps explain why there wasn’t a photo of the flag hung in Marnie’s schoolroom?
Finally, there was a brief comment about how women should salute the flag:
When we printed our article on how to conduct a flag raising [May 17, 1917] we described the form of salute for military men and the form for civilians, but we mentioned none for women, because there is none.
At the first note of The Star-Spangled Banner the color guard assume the position of the military salute and hold it to the end.
The civilians uncover, hold the hat in front of the left shoulder and against it, and maintain that position to the end.
A woman who has called attention to the lack makes the sensible suggestion that women adopt the military form of salute.
It is both dignified and graceful, and does not require that the hat be removed.
And there was a second suggestion by another woman:
A subscriber sends us an admirable suggestion how women may salute the flag.
“Someone,” she writes, “—was it not Edward Everett Hale?—has urged that girls and women salute the flag by standing erect with the right hand over the heart, “because the real salute is in the heart, after all.”
The hand-over-heart salute became the official flag salute for all civilians, on December 22, 1942, when Congress amended the Flag Code.
In summary, The Youth’s Companion inspired and fostered patriotism by creating and publishing stories, poetry, news articles, illustrations, and ceremonies to honor the flag.
The June 14, 1917 issue—published on Flag Day—contained five examples of patriotic content:
- A story about a patriotic little girl, “Marnie and the Flag”
- A poem to inspire patriotism, “The Boy and the Flag”
- A news article about a change in Massachusetts law governing publishing photos of the flag
- A drawing with a challenge, “The flag—Do you fly it as a decoration or a declaration?”
- And finally, guidance about how women should salute the flag
The Youth’s Companion is filled with hundreds of such examples and we will be offering many more of them on our website.
And that’s where many of our patriotic rituals and traditions came from!
Looking for additional reading about who we are as Americans?