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May she proudly wave

Kathy Filgo

The flag of the United States of America has long been a symbol that has evoked passions of patriotism over our several-hundred-year history. And while it was an evolutionary (if not revolutionary) process to get to the vision we salute today, there are specific codes and standards of etiquette that have been set regarding how we are to treat this symbol of our nation.

The evolution of the flag itself has been a colorful one. Originally, various different flags were flown by the colonies and militias of this country until 1777 when the Continental Congress, seeking to promote national pride and unity, adopted the first official version of the national flag.

It is not known for certain who designed the first stars and stripes but it is believed that it was Congressman Francis Hopkinson. George Washington purportedly brought an original pencil sketch of the new flag to Betsy Ross, a seamstress with her own upholstery business and an acquaintance of Washington’s. Washington’s original request was a flag that hosted six-pointed stars, a form he apparently preferred, but after a deft display by Ross of creating a five-pointed star with a single cut of the scissors, the impressed committee agreed to the change.



The original version was a flag with 13 stripes, alternating red and white; and a union of 13 stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation. The stars would represent the 13 colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.

There is no record to indicate why the Continental Congress chose the colors, however, in 1782 the same colors were chosen for the Great Seal of the United States listing their meaning as follows: white to mean purity and innocence, red for valor and hardiness, and blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice. Some historians draw comparisons to relate the two.



The original stars represented the 13 colonies and were displayed in a circle so that no one colony would be viewed above another. In 1795 when Vermont and Kentucky joined the Union, two additional stripes and two additional stars were added to the flag.

By 1818, with five new states soon to join the Union, it became apparent that the flag could become quite unwieldy. It was suggested to Congress by Captain Samuel Reid, USN, that the stripes remain 13 in number representing the original thirteen colonies, and a star be added for each new state coming into the Union. The most recent change to the configuration was in 1960 when Hawaii became the 50th state.

Today the flag has been the center of controversy over its treatment but it is no stranger to debate. Just prior to the Civil War President Lincoln stood up to congress and would not allow any stars to be removed from the flag, in spite of the south seceding from the Union.



There is an official Federal Flag Code with dictates the standards of respect and rules for the display of the American flag which formalizes and unifies the tradition. The Flag Code is intended as a guide to be followed on a purely voluntary basis to insure proper respect; and since a Supreme Court decision in 1989, violation of the standards carries no legal penalties.

Here are a few of those accepted standards:

The flag is never dipped to any person or thing. (This created an international incident during the 1908 Olympics in London when the U.S. flag-bearer refrained from dipping the stars and stripes, as did each other country’s flag-bearers, when passing the king during opening ceremonies.].

It is flown upside down only as a distress signal.

The U.S. flag is always the first flag raised and the last flag lowered.

When the flag is lowered it should not touch the ground.

The flag should ordinarily be displayed only between sunrise and sunset.

When displayed at night the flag should be illuminated.

It should not be used for any decoration in general such as a drapery, covering a speaker’s desk, draping a platform.

The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.

The flag should never have any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind placed on or attached to it (a photograph in 2003 of President Bush autographing a small flag became controversial).

To store the flag it should be folded neatly and ceremoniously

When the flag is displayed from a staff, the union should be at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half mast.

When displayed from the same flagpole with another flag, for example a state flag, community flag, or scout unity, the flag of the United States must always be at the top. An exception is a church pennant may be flown above the U. S. flag during church services for Navy personnel when conducted by a naval chaplain on a ship at sea.

When displayed on a car, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.

When hung in a window, place the blue union in the upper left as viewed from the street.

The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. (Your attention may have been drawn to some commercial establishments flying enormously large American flags, usually also illuminated at night. Some of these establishments are located in zones that do not allow for billboards, large, or lighted signs.)

When flown with other flags, the other flags may be smaller but none may be larger.

When the flag is displayed with another flag against a wall from crossed staffs, the U.S. staff should be in front of the staff of the other flag and the U.S. flag to the viewer’s left.

The flag is to be flown at half staff in mourning for designated, principal government leaders and upon presidential or gubernatorial order. It should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. When lowered it should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. Crepe streamers may be affixed to spear heads or flagstaffs in a parade only by order of the President of the United States.

When used to cover a casket, the flag should be placed with the union at the head and over the left shoulder. It should not be lowered into the grave.

The flag should be cleaned and mended when necessary.

When a flag becomes so worn it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol for the country, it should be destroyed by burning in a dignified manner. Most American Legion Posts regularly conduct dignified flag burning ceremonies. Many Cub Scout Packs, Boy Scout, and Girl Scout Troops retire flags regularly.

The American flag has been waved from the tip of the world, when Robert Peary planted it on the North Pole, and from the tip of the universe, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deployed it on the surface of the moon. When you unfurl your American flag at your home or your place of business there is a code of etiquette to follow that has been tradition for decades if not centuries. Help her fly proudly and long may she wave.

Vail, Colorado


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