The American flag is one of the United States’ most significant and powerful patriotic symbols. We have so many stuff for it such as our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” written by a lawyer named Francis Scott Key who witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 while a prisoner on a British ship in Baltimore Harbor. Of course, even though the flag has been around since the American Revolution but contrary to what you might’ve learned in school, it was definitely not designed by a woman named Betsy Ross (that was just some bullshit story made up by her grandson). It was more likely designed by Continental Congress delegate and signer of the Declaration of Independence Francis Hopkinson (and even his claim has holes in it but at least his involvement with the design is supported by evidence). Yet, there are also stories relating to other individuals as well. But as to whoever sewn the first American flag, it could be any flag maker in Philadelphia. Over the years, it has gone through many renditions, there wasn’t a lot of rules that pertained to the stars and stripes at first save perhaps that it should include 13 red and white stripes as well as a blue square at the top left corner that consisted of a number of stars that depicted the number of states at the time. However, until 1912, there was no pattern to how the stars should be displayed. And if you go to an American Civil War museum, then you’d find a lot of interesting patterns.
Despite that the Stars and Stripes was adopted in 1777, it wasn’t until 146 years later when there was a serious attempt to establish a uniform code of etiquette for the US flag. On February 15, 1923, the War Department issued the US Flag Code which was adopted almost in their entirety on June 14 of that year by a conference of 68 patriotic organizations in Washington D.C. However, the US Flag Code didn’t become official law until years later. Now military branches have their own codes for the American Flag. This is for civilians.
“The words “flag, standard, colors, or ensign”, as used herein, shall include any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture or representation of either, or of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance, of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America or a picture or a representation of either, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, colors, standard, or ensign of the United States of America.” –Introduction to the US Flag Code Ch. 1 Title 4.
When to Display the Flag
On all days, especially on legal holidays and other special occasions.
On official buildings when in use, in or near polling places on election days, and in or near schools when in session.
Customary between sunrise and sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open.
Citizens may fly it at any time.
May be displayed at night, on special occasions, preferably lighted.
Flies at the White House and the East and West fronts as well as the dome of the US Capitol at all times and at the US House and Senate while in session. Other places it flies continuously at: US customs and ports of entry, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine as well as Flag House Square in Baltimore, the Francis Scott Key Home, the Marine Corps War Memorial (Raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima), Battle Green at Lexington, Massachusetts, the South Pole, the Moon, Valley Forge, and other places by custom.
50 flags are continuously displayed at the Washington Monument.
A Civil War era flag flies continuously at Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College.
Small flags usually fly at all times on graves of those who’ve served in the US military.
Flying the Flag at Half-Staff
Signal of mourning.
Should be hoisted to the peak before being lowered to half-staff.
- By presidential proclamation.
- 30 days from the day of death for a sitting or former president.
- 10 days from the day of death for a current Vice President, current/retired Chief Supreme Court Justice, and Speaker of the House.
- Day of death to day to burial for associate Supreme Court Justice, cabinet member, former Vice President, Senate president pro tempore, and House and Senate majority and minority leaders.
- Day of death to following day in DC and day of death to burial in decedent’s constituency for US senator, representative, territorial delegate, and residential commissioner for Puerto Rico.
- Day of death to burial in the decedent’s constituency for governor.
- On Memorial Day until noon and then raised at peak.
- On Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (July 27), National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7), and Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15).
How to Fly the Flag
Should be hoisted briskly and ceremoniously.
Should never touch the ground or floor.
When hung over a sidewalk, union side should be away from the building.
When hung over the center of a street, union side should be to the north in an east-west street and to the east in a north-south street.
Must not fly any flag above it or to the right if flown at the same level, except at the United Nations Headquarters and only the UN flag for the former and the member states for the latter.
When 2 flags are placed against a wall with crossed staffs, it should be at right and in front of the staff of the other flag.
When a number of flags are grouped and displayed on staffs, it should be at the center and highest point of the group.
When displayed on a private estate, it shouldn’t be hung (unless at half-staff or when an all weather flag is displayed) during rain or violent weather.
Church and Platform Use
In an auditorium, must be displayed flat, above, and behind the speaker.
When displayed on a staff at church or in a public auditorium, it must hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in a position of honor on the speaker’s right while he or she faces the audience. Other flags should be placed on the left facing the audience.
When it is displayed at the floor of a church or public auditorium, it should be placed on the speaker’s left.
When displayed horizontally or vertically against the wall or hung, the stars should be uppermost and at the observer’s left.
When covering a casket, it should be placed so that the union (star side) is at the head and over the left shoulder. It should not be lowered into the grave or touch the ground.
Ways to display it on a casket:
- Closed Casket: When the flag is used to drape a closed casket, it should be so placed that the union (blue field) is at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased. It may be said that the flag is embracing the deceased who in life has served the flag.
- Half Couch (Open): When the flag is used to drape a half-couch casket, it should be placed three layers to cover the closed half of the casket in such a manner that the blue field will be the top fold, next to the open portion of the casket on the deceased’s left.
- Full Couch (Open): When the flag is used to drape a full-couch casket, it should be folded in a triangular shape and placed in the center part of the head panel of the casket cap, just above the left shoulder of the deceased. (ushistory.org)
Maintaining the Flag
When lowered, it should never touch the ground, water, or other object as well as received in waiting hands. It should be folded neatly and ceremoniously.
It should never be stepped on.
It should be cleaned and mended when necessary.
The flag should be ceremoniously folded like this:
1. Begin by holding it waist-high with another person so that its surface is parallel to the ground.
2. Fold the lower half of the stripe section lengthwise over the field of stars, holding the bottom and top edges securely.
3. Fold the flag again lengthwise with the blue field on the outside.
4. Make a rectangular fold then a triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to meet the open top edge of the flag, starting the fold from the left side over to the right.
5. Turn the outer end point inward, parallel to the open edge, to form a second triangle.
6. The triangular folding is continued until the entire length of the flag is folded in this manner (usually thirteen triangular folds, as shown at right). On the final fold, any remnant that does not neatly fold into a triangle (or in the case of exactly even folds, the last triangle) is tucked into the previous fold.
7. When the flag is completely folded, only a triangular blue field of stars should be visible.
How to Dispose of a Worn Flag
When the flag is in a condition that makes it no longer an emblem for display, it must be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably burning. If you can’t do it yourself remember that you can always contact your local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Boy Scouts of America, the military or other organizations that conduct dignified flag burning and retirement ceremonies.
However, if it’s made from polyester or nylon, it’s best if you have it recycled due to hazardous gases being produced while it’s being burned.
Nevertheless, if you find a damaged flag say from an era prior to 1912, you might want to have preserved in a museum immediately.
When to Salute the Flag
All should face the flag, stand at attention and salute on these occasions:
1. When the flag is passing in a parade or review
2. During the ceremony of hoisting and lowering
3. While the national anthem is played
4. During the Pledge of Allegiance
During these occasions, those in uniform should render military style. Civilians should place the right hand over their heart. Men wearing hats should remove them and old it on their left shoulders during the salute.
Prohibited Uses of the Flag
Don’t dip the flag into any person or thing (except if it’s a customary ship salute).
Don’t display the flag with the union side down except as a distress signal.
Don’t carry the flag horizontally or flat, but always aloft and free.
Don’t display it on a float, automobile, train or a boat except from a staff.
Don’t place anything on it.
Don’t use it as a ceiling covering.
Don’t place any word, design, insignia, number, letter, mark, picture, or drawing on it (meaning you don’t write anything on it or use it for any design).
Don’t use it as a receptacle for carrying or delivering anything.
Don’t use it as a cover for a statue or monument.
Don’t use it for advertising or put an advertising sign attached to the staff or halyard.
Don’t impress, print, paint, or embroider it on articles boxes, napkins, or anything designed for temporary use and discard as well as stuff like handkerchiefs and cushions.
Don’t fasten, store, display, or use it in a manner that could leave it easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
Don’t use it as part of a costume or athletic uniform except if it’s a flag patch on the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers, astronauts, and members of patriotic organizations (and only as designated by that organization). However, if you should wear a flag lapel, it should be pinned near the heart.
Don’t use it as drapery, bedding, apparel, or decoration of any sort (save a casket during funerals for servicemen, first responders, and high public officials as long as it’s taken off and ceremonially folded). If you want patriotic decoration and drapery for a speaker’s desk, go with a patriotic bunting instead with the blue above and white in the middle.
Don’t festoon, draw back, up, bunched up, or in folds, but always allowed to fall free.
As of now, there are no penalties for desecrating an American Flag though there have been suggestions with one law from 1968 saying that it could lead to a $1,000 fine or a year’s imprisonment. Nevertheless, as you’ve seen in the media, many Americans frequently violate these rules in the US Flag Code even though it’s usually those who burn the flag at protest rallies who usually receive the most criticism and calls for prosecution. Advertisers, athletic owners, and clothing designers, not so much but you see the flag’s image desecrated like this all the time in these ways. And sometimes having the flag used in this way is seen as promoting patriotism (even though the people who do this either don’t realize what they’re doing or really don’t care). And here the political spectrum doesn’t matter since shows of flag desecration are basically an American tradition at this point, even when played not to be. Even the US government does this as well since flags are a frequent image on postage stamps. Thus, to call anyone unpatriotic for disrespecting the flag is just stupid since it’s something we basically all do at one time or another.
FAQ on the flag: http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/faq.htm
I had no idea that the U.S. Flag Code is so detailed and strict. We are all being unintentionally disrespectful to the Flag. How about how often the Flag is at Half-staff? According this code, it is done only for very specific situations. Interesting stuff.
This is a fantastic post- you show by example how to treat an American flag, interesting shots- not just the tips but interesting photos as well. Thanks!
This was a fantastic article! I am a retired Marine and this subject is one of my biggest pet peeves. The biggest is the display of the flag horizontally or flat. As you mentioned, it’s done at football games all the time. It really bothers me when it’s done at supposedly ‘patriotic’ games like the Army/Navy game which is often presided over by the president or other dignitary. They should all know better! Thank you for this!
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