The True Heft of a Flag
Betsy Ross got the credit for designing the original 13-star version of the American flag, but the current flag was designed by Bob Heft, a plucky 17-year-old who dreamed up the 50-star flag in 1958 for a history project. Although Heft's teacher originally awarded the banner a B-minus, the grade was raised to an A after Heft successfully lobbied the White House to adopt the design as the official U.S. flag.
Going to Great Lengths
The moniker "the Great Lakes" isn't an exaggeration. Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario make up 21 percent of the planet's surface fresh water. The largest of these, Lake Superior, contains enough water to cover all of North and South America in a foot of the wet stuff.
High Court Hoops
Who said the Supreme Court was the highest court in the land? That honor actually belongs to a basketball court in the upstairs gym of the Supreme Court Building. While the court, appropriately nicknamed "The Highest Court in the Land," isn't open to the public, Justice Byron White (who played college football, basketball, and baseball) and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist are but a few of the distinguished players who have shot hoops on the court.
Time Stands Still
Twice a year there's that confusing morning when you wake up and realize you forgot to change the clocks for Daylight Saving Time—that is unless you live in one of the rare places in the United States that doesn't participate. Arizona (excluding the Navajo Nation which covers Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico), Hawaii, and the U.S. territories Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands skip this practice since they already get plenty of sunlight.
Aside from free rent and fancy dinners with foreign leaders, being president comes with an occupational hazard that should give future applicants pause. Four out of 45 presidents—or 9 percent—have been assassinated, making CEO of the country statistically the most deadly occupation in America.
Three out of five of the oldest rivers in the world snake through these 50 states. The New, Susquehanna, and French Broad rivers are thought to be between 265 and 325 million years old.
A Lot of Alaska
Alaska may have been the penultimate state to join the Union, but it boasts a coastline that's longer than the coastline of the other 49 states combined. In terms of landmass, "The Last Frontier," as Alaska is known, is 429 times larger than America's smallest state, Rhode Island.
Americans prize their pigskin so much that college football coaches are the highest-paid public employees in more than half of all 50 states. The three highest-paid college football coaches together raked in more than $21.9 million in earnings in 2016.
New York in Numbers
It's no wonder you can never snag a table at Grand Central Market. The number of people living in the Big Apple is greater than the population of 38 states. And every square mile of New York City squeezes in over 27,000 people.
The famed crack in the Liberty Bell isn't its only flaw. Eagle-eyed visitors to the Liberty Bell Center will note that Pennsylvania, the icon's home since it was cast in 1752, is misspelled on the bell as "Pensylvania." Historians of orthography, however, will retort that the spelling was an acceptable variant in the 18th century.
Not simply one of the world's foremost tourist attractions, the Hoover Dam also competes with the Seven Wonders of the World in scale. The dam is greater in volume than the Great Pyramid of Giza but required one-twentieth of the manpower to construct. It holds enough concrete to construct a two-lane highway running from San Francisco to New York City.
The United States has 42,000 ZIP codes, and you can look up all but one: the president's secret ZIP code. The U.S. Postal Service issues a new personal ZIP code to each incoming president to help manage the large volume of correspondence that the first family receives. The special code ensures that important and personal mail reaches the president and his family.
If you need a place to hit the hay for a night in Nevada, you'll hit the jackpot in Las Vegas. The City of Lights is home to more than 151,000 hotel rooms; crashing in a different room every night would keep you busy for around 413 years.
Crater Lake in Oregon has the distinction of being the deepest in the country and the second-deepest on the continent. The lake is deep enough to submerge six Statues of Liberty stacked end to end!
Since its opening in 1800, the Library of Congress has grown from a respectable 6,487 books to a bookworm's dream collection of over 16 million books. The library boasts 838 miles of bookshelves in total—more than enough to span the distance from Houston to Chicago.
The West Coast's Wallet
California's latest GDP of around $3.2 trillion surpasses that of the entire United Kingdom. This means that if the Golden State were its own country, it would have the fifth largest economy in the world.
Another Day, Another Dollar
Famed songwriter Ray Henderson might have gotten it wrong when he wrote his 1927 hit "The Best Things in Life Are Free." Watching the sunrise from Haleakalā National Park in Maui is such a popular bucket list item for travelers to Hawaii that it comes with a price tag of $1.50 per car.
A Penchant for Pizza
Up there with baseball and apple pie, one of America's most popular pastimes is polishing off a pizza. The equivalent of one hundred acres of the cheesy pies is eaten every day in the United States.
The Dark Side of D.C.
Over its relatively short history, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., has hosted distinguished bishops, presidents, and, since the 1980s, a gargoyle in the image of Darth Vader. The imposing addition, inspired by a drawing from a Star Wars-loving child artist, can be spotted via binoculars on a gablet below a pinnacle on the northwest tower of the cathedral.
Wikimedia Commons via Cyraxote
The legislatures of many states have adopted animals as state symbols. In some instances, these animals have since been dispelled from their natural habitats or hunted to the point of near (or actual) extinction. For example, the iconic California grizzly that graces that state's flag is now extinct. Grizzlies haven't been spotted in California—outside of zoos, that is—since the 1920s.
Next Stop: Santa Claus
The story of Santa Claus has its roots in Myra, an ancient town located in what is now modern-day Turkey. But in the 18th century, the story of Santa so ignited the imaginations of Americans that it inspired the name of three towns. Today you'll find a Santa Claus in Indiana, Arizona, and Georgia.
Wikimedia Commons via Sarah Afshar
The Cost of Coins
It takes a pretty penny for the U.S. government to mint a one-cent coin. In fact, it comes to 1.8 cents per penny—or nearly twice its face value. And while nickels are worth half as much as dimes, they cost about twice as much to make—9.4 cents versus 4.6 cents.
Although roughly 9,800 pairs of nesting bald eagles call the skies above our 50 states their home, if you spot a graceful pair of wings above, they probably belong to something entirely different. At any given moment, five thousand commercial airplanes are flying over the United States.
Crocodiles and alligators both belong to the reptile order Crocodilia, but you won't find them fraternizing in most parts of the world. In fact, South Florida is the only place on the planet where the two ravenous reptile species coexist.
The signatures on the Declaration of Independence certainly made a bigger impact on American history, but physically, the biggest signature in the country is the John Hancock of farmer Jimmie Luecke. The two-and-a-half-mile-long insignia across Luecke's farmland in Smithville, Texas, is so enormous that you can spot it from space.
While Phoenix hosts the largest municipal park in the country (16,283-acre South Mountain Park), the title of tiniest city park belongs to Mill Ends Park in Portland, Oregon. Only watchful eyes will notice the diminutive two-foot-wide patch of green on Naito Parkway in Downtown Portland, planted in the 1940s by Oregon Journal columnist Dick Fagan.
Wikimedia Commons via EncMstr
Hundreds in Hiding
The $100 bill, which dates back to the 1860s, has traveled far and wide during its lifetime. Benjamins are exported in such high quantities that only one-third of all available $100 bills are physically in the United States.
Cheap cheeseburgers aren't the only reason that the famed golden arches of McDonald's have become a cornerstone of Americana. One out of eight Americans have been employed by the fast-food giant at some point.
While some people assume English is the official language in the United States, the federal government has never declared a national language. English is the most commonly spoken language in the country, with 237.8 million speakers, followed by Spanish, with an estimated 41 million speakers.
The Birthplace of America
Chalk it up to coincidence, or perhaps even to fate, but more American presidents were born in Virginia, our capital's southern neighbor, than in any other state. Eight heads of state got their start in Virginia, aptly nicknamed "Mother of Presidents."
Little do most Bourbon buffs know that the amber libation is also America's only native spirit. Congress designated bourbon whiskey as a distinctive product of the United States in 1964 in an effort to thwart competitors abroad from re-creating it. Today, Kentucky, the birthplace of the brew, is home to over 2 million more bourbon barrels than people and supplies more than 95 percent of the world's bourbon.
There's no food or drink permitted on the Senate floor, which means that the candy-filled desk that sits near the entrance to the chamber on the Republican side is off limits. California Senator George Murphy established the tempting tradition in 1964, but former Illinois Senator Mark Kirk most recently occupied the desk and maintained its drawer of delights.
The stars-and-stripes-laden shirts, swimsuits, and hats that many wear on the Fourth of July technically break the U.S. Flag Code, which states that "no part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform." That said, the code doesn't prescribe penalties for the act of flag misuse—it leaves that up to state governments and the federal government for offenses in the District of Columbia—so Uncle Sam probably won't pursue these fashion faux pas.
Related: The 50 Strangest Laws in America
To jumpstart your holiday season, check out Bob Vila's favorite affordable stocking stuffers for everyone on your list!