An oft-overlooked holiday on the calendar is Flag Day, June 14, which celebrates the official establishment of the American flag. The occasion was first created by an Illinois dentist.
Bernard Cigrand, a Chicagoland resident who taught in the Dental Schools of both Northwestern and the University of Illinois, is credited with the first observance of Flag Day, in 1885. It was only the first instance in a lifelong devotion to annual celebrations of the U.S. flag.
Then, Cigrand was a nineteen-year-old instructor for $40 a month in a one-room schoolhouse near Fredonia, Wis., north of Milwaukee. A son of immigrants from Luxembourg and an American history enthusiast, Cigrand sought to share his love of country with his pupils.
His desk was adorned with a ten-inch American flag, and the story of the flag became a favorite part of his curriculum. He reportedly required his classes to write essays on such topics as “What the American Flag Means to Me.”
On June 14, 1885, the 108th anniversary of the designation of an official flag by the Continental Congress, Cigrand held a “Flag Birthday” in honor of the Stars and Stripes.
The next year, Cigrand began writing a string of newspaper and magazine articles, advocating a national celebration of the American flag. Others took interest, and on June 14, 1889, a kindergarten teacher in New York City held ceremonies with his students to honor the flag. That effort was picked up by the State Board of Education of New York.
Two years later, the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia held a commemoration, though, ironically, most historians today discredit any connection of Ross to the first flag.
On June 14, 1892, the New York Society of the Sons of Revolution held a Flag Day celebration, while the following year, the Pennsylvania Society of the Colonial Dames of America presented a resolution asking the mayor, public figures, and private citizens to fly the flag that June 14.
The request became a large-scale Flag Day exercise in Independence Square, where schoolchildren were given small flags, patriotic songs were sung, and speeches were given.
In New York in 1894, the governor ordered that the flag be flown on all public buildings on June 14. In succeeding years, Flag Day continued to be honored in growing pockets across the nation.
But Cigrand remained the driving force. He helped organize both the American Flag Day Association and the Illinois Flag Day Association while producing more articles on the flag, particularly for Encyclopedia Americana. Cigrand’s societies helped organize some 300,000 youngsters in Chicago to gather in five city parks on June 14, 1894 to celebrate the flag in the first general commemoration by public schoolchildren
In addition, Cigrand wrote a 550-page work, The History of American Emblems, and is credited with the designs of the official seals of both Chicago and Cook County. He also wrote an illustrated work, The Story of the American Flag.
By then, Cigrand had used his earnings as a teacher to enter dental school. He graduated first in the Class of 1888 at the Lake Forest College of Dentistry north of Chicago, and later served on the faculty of the Dental Schools at both Northwestern and the University of Illinois. He also served as President of the American College of Dental Surgeons, as well as President of the Chicago Public Library.
By 1912, Cigrand was practicing dentistry from his home in Batavia, Ill., and kept calling for a National Flag Day celebration. Finally in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the official establishment of Flag Day. Cigrand considered this creation of Flag Day to be his life’s greatest achievement.
He continued in dentistry, and in 1920 joined his son in a practice in Aurora. Cigrand moved his residence there in 1932, but died of a heart attack that May.
On Aug. 3, 1949, President Harry Truman signed a Congressional Act that named June 14 as the National Flag Day.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.