I've lived in Flagstaff, AZ, since 2003, where I'm an active member of the Coconino County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and an avid hiker.
There are Rules for the Stars and Stripes
Until I met my husband, a very patriotic veteran and federal employee, I really had no idea there were specific rules for displaying the American flag or for properly disposing of a worn-out flag. In fact, I'd never actually flown one of my own, even though there was a pole right outside the house.
But my husband has influenced me in that department, and now, not only is there always a Red, White, and Blue flying at our home, but I'm also learning the proper etiquette for its display and handling. I also find myself noticing that either many people around town either aren't aware of some of these rules (most likely) ... or perhaps choose not to follow them. Then again, there are quite a few guidelines and, like me before being enlightened by my husband, many people probably don't even know those dos and don'ts exist.
So, here I'd like to share what I've learned about U.S. flag etiquette for displaying the it at our own homes, places of business, and special events, and when and how to replace a flag, along with additional resources if you'd like to learn more about this subject.
Photo credits: Unless otherwise noted, all images on this page were taken by me and also by my husband, Jeremy Kingsbury (used with his blessing of course).
The Correct, Respectful Ways to Display the Flag
Just as there are "rules of etiquette" for the table (which many of us at least partly ignore because they feel kind of silly or extreme), so too are there guidelines for displaying our nation's flag. If you include specifics for the military, the list gets even longer, but I'll focus here on flag basics that apply to your average citizen. So, in no particular order....
- Unless you have an "all-weather" flag, which is usually made of heavy weight nylon, you're supposed to take it down during inclement weather.
- If you're flying other flags along with the national one, the U.S. flag should be higher -- on a taller pole -- rather than even with or below. So, even when at half staff, Old Glory should still be higher than the others. And it should be at the center of a grouping.
- Unless your flag is lighted, it should be taken down at sunset. Flags can be lit from below or from above.
- If you're displaying a flag on an indoor wall, the stars should be on the observer's left. (If it's backwards, it's actually a distress signal.)
- If the U.S. flag will be displayed on a stage or in a parade, it should be to the viewer's left of any other flags in the line, as you see in the photo above.
- When displayed on a vehicle in a parade or procession, for example, the flag should be attached to the right (passenger side) fender or to the frame (chassis) rather than draped over the hood.
- My husband told me that the size of the flag should be "proportional to the height of the pole." What exactly does that mean, though, I asked him, because that could easily be left up to personal interpretation. He couldn't answer that specifically, so I looked for some information and found this rule of thumb: the length of the flag should be about one-quarter the height of the pole.
- A small replica like a lapel pin should be worn on the left, near the heart.
The U.S. Stars & Stripes should always be flown higher than state, local, and other flags.
What Not to Do with the American Flag
Some of these "don'ts" surprised me
- Did you know, the American flag isn't supposed to be used in any way as clothing or a costume, as bedding or drapery? I see that all the time at the Fourth of July parade.
- Another thing I've seen a lot are large versions of the Stars and Stripes rolled out or held up by a bunch of people over a football field while the National Anthem is sung. That's done at NFL games all the time. Well, I've learned that that's actually contrary to flag etiquette, as it's never supposed to be displayed flat like that.
- Also, the flag isn't supposed to be used in advertising in any way. Really? This is something I've seen a LOT.
- The Red, White, and Blue shouldn't be used as a motif on products -- anything from furniture to throw-away items like napkins.
- And there are some myths floating around about the flag, including one that states that a flag that touches the ground should be burned. This isn't true. It just needs to be removed from the ground right away.
When to Fly the U.S. Flag at Half Staff
Scheduled and unscheduled dates
National flags are lowered to half staff per presidential order, by order of the governor of a state, or by mayors. These proclamations can also be made by the heads of federal departments and agencies. While no one is going to come knocking on your door if you fail to lower your own flag to half staff, you can certainly do so if you're aware of the scheduled dates and also unscheduled days of mourning.
Examples of unscheduled days of mourning would be things like the death of a current or former U.S. president, vice president, and other officials, including sometimes foreign dignitaries, or in the wake of tragedies such as the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon.
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The proper way to place a flag at half staff is to first run it all the way to the top, swiftly, and then slowly lower it back to half staff. When the National flag is at half staff, all other flags -- state, local, POW, etc. -- should also be at half staff.
As of this writing, the current scheduled dates for lowering the flag are....
- May 15, Peace Officers Memorial Day: From sunrise to sunset
- Memorial Day, the last Monday in May: Lower the flag at sunrise until noon, then raise to the top of the staff.
- September 11th, now known as Patriot's Day: Sunrise to sunset
- National Firefighters Memorial Day, the first Sunday in October: Sunrise to sunset
- December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day: Sunrise to sunset
Note: If you have a flag that can't be lowered because it's permanently affixed to the pole, you can instead attach two black ribbons or streamers to the end of the pole but not to the flag itself.
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When Is It Time for a New Flag?
This is one instance where there's no hard and fast rule. Generally, though, if your flag is becoming tattered, torn, faded or otherwise damaged, it's time for a new one. Use your discretion. If it looks dull or dingy, replace it. For the most part, flags really aren't expensive, and a good, all-weather flag can last at least a year -- often much longer -- before it starts to look worn.
If your flag is just dirty for some reason, you can wash it or have it dry cleaned -- depends on the type of fabric -- and some dry cleaners will even do it for free. It's also acceptable to do repairs, like sewing a stripe that's coming off or clipping a ragged edge and re-hemming it. But you're not supposed to do so to the point that the proportions are off. Again, use your discretion here, but you don't want to fly a flag with an uneven edge or that's been shortened on one side or the other.
Where to Take Your Old American Flag for Proper Disposal - Please don't just throw it away
It's logical that a symbol of a nation shouldn't just be discarded but instead "retired" in a respectful manner. In the case of the American flag, there are guidelines for holding a retirement ceremony, with burning being the preferred ending. (I'd always been under the impression that burning a flag was a big no-no, but I've since learned that that's not the case when it's no longer fit for display.)
If you'd like to hold your own flag retirement ceremony, you can read about the process (a couple different versions) on the National Flag Foundation website. This can be a nice tradition for a family and a good opportunity to teach kids.
If you don't want to hold your own retirement process, many communities have one or more of these organizations in the local area where you can drop off your flags that are no longer fit to display....
- The American Legion
- The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America
- The VFW
- Junior ROTC Corps at local high schools
- The Marine Corps League
- Or send your retired flags to Flag Keepers at 349-L Copperfield Blvd #105, Concord, NC 28025. This is an organization specifically devoted to the proper disposal of tattered, worn out flags. The organization is made up of network of patriotic volunteers across the country and even internationally as well.
- USA Flag Supply also performs free retirement ceremonies. You just have to send them the flag, and they'll also give you 10% off a new one.
More Resources for American Flag Rules and Etiquette
- The United States Flag Code
This set of official guidelines really gets into the nitty-gritty details of how to display and otherwise use and pay respect to the Stars and Stripes. It can be confusing for the average citizen, who doesn't need to follow these rules to a T. But th
- The National Flag Foundation
Click on the links in the left-hande side bar under Proper Flag Etiquette -- ie. "across a street," "flags on a pole," "folding the flag," etc. -- for an easy to understand explanation of each rule or set of guidelines.
An Event at the American Legion
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury