The flag of the United States consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of Red (top and bottom) alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton bearing fifty small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternating with rows of five stars. The fifty stars on the flag represent the fifty U.S. states and the thirteen stripes represent the original thirteen colonies that rebelled against the British Crown and became the first states in the Union. Nicknames for the flag include the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, and The Star-Spangled Banner (also the name of the national anthem).
The flag of the United States is one of the nation's most widely recognized symbols. Within the U.S. it is frequently displayed, not only on public buildings, but on private residences. It is also used as a motif on decals for car windows, and clothing ornaments such as badges and lapel pins. Throughout the world it is used in public discourse to refer to the U.S., both as a nation state, government, and set of policies, but also as an ideology and set of ideas.
Many understand the flag to represent the national government established in the U.S. Constitution, the rights of the citizens promised in the Bill of Rights, and perhaps most of all to be a symbol of individual and personal liberty as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. The flag is a complex and contentious symbol, around which emotions run high.
Apart from the numbers of stars and stripes representing the number of current and original states, respectively, and the union with its stars representing a constellation, there is no legally defined symbolism to the colors and shapes on the flag. However, folk theories and traditions abound; for example, that the stripes refer to rays of sunlight and that the stars refer to the heavens, the highest place that a person could aim to reach.
The exact shades of red, white, and blue to be used in the flag are specified as follows:
The 49- and 50-star unions
When Alaska and Hawaii were being considered for statehood in the 1950s, more than 1,500 designs were spontaneously submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although some of them were 49-star versions, the vast majority were 50-star proposals. At least three, and probably more, of these designs were identical to the present design of the 50-star flag. At the time, credit was given by the executive department to the United States Army Institute of Heraldry for the design.
Of these proposals, one created by 18-year old Robert G. Heft in 1958 as a school project has received the most publicity. His mother was a seamstress, but refused to do any of the work for him. He originally received a B- for the project. After discussing the grade with his teacher, it was agreed (somewhat jokingly) that if the flag was accepted by Congress, the grade would be reconsidered. Heft's flag design was chosen and adopted by presidential proclamation after Alaska and before Hawaii was admitted into the union in 1959. He got an A.
Traditionally, the flag may be decorated with golden fringe surrounding the perimeter of the flag as long as it does not deface the flag proper. Ceremonial displays of the flag, such as those in parades or on indoor posts, often use fringe to enhance the beauty of the flag. The first recorded use of fringe on a flag dates from 1835, and the Army used it officially in 1895. No specific law governs the legality of fringe, but a 1925 opinion of the attorney general addresses the use of fringe (and the number of stars) "...is at the discretion of the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy..." as quoted from footnote in previous volumes of Title 4 of the United States Code law books and is a source for claims that such a flag is a military ensign not civilian. However, according to the Army Institute of Heraldry, which has official custody of the flag designs and makes any change ordered, there are no implications of symbolism in the use of fringe. Several federal courts have upheld this conclusion.
The flag is customarily flown year-round at most public buildings, and it is not unusual to find private houses flying full-size flags. Some private use is year-round, but becomes widespread on civic holidays like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Presidents' Day, Flag Day, and on Independence Day. On Memorial Day it is common to place small flags by war memorials and next to the graves of U.S. war veterans. Also on Memorial Day it is common to fly the flag at half staff in remembrance of those who lost their lives in war while fighting for the U.S.
The United States Flag Code outlines certain guidelines for the use, display, and disposal of the flag. For example, the flag should never be dipped to any person or thing, unless it is the ensign responding to a salute from a ship of a foreign nation. (This tradition may come from the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, where countries were asked to dip their flag to King Edward VII: the American flag bearer did not. Team captain Martin Sheridan is famously quoted as saying "this flag dips to no earthly king", though the true provenance of this quotation is unclear).
The flag should never be allowed to touch the ground and, if flown at night, must be illuminated. If the edges become tattered through wear, the flag should be repaired or replaced. When a flag is so tattered that can no longer serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. The American Legion and other organizations regularly conduct dignified flag-burning ceremonies, often on Flag Day, June 14. It is a common myth that if a flag touches the ground or becomes soiled, it must be burned as well. While a flag that is currently touching the ground and a soiled flag are unfit for display, neither situation is permanent and thus the flag does not need to be burned if the unfit situation is remedied. Significantly, the Flag Code proscribes using the flag "for any advertising purpose" and also states that the flag "should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use". Both of these prohibitions are widely flouted, almost always without comment.
Although the Flag Code is U.S. Federal law, there is no penalty for failure to comply with the Flag Code and it is not widely enforced—indeed, punitive enforcement would conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Passage of the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment would overrule legal precedent that has been established.
Display on vehicles and uniforms
When the flag is affixed to the side of a vehicle or uniform, it should be oriented so that the union is towards the front. This is done to give the impression that the flag is blowing backwards from its hoist as the vehicle or wearer moves forward. Therefore, U.S. flag decals (or patches) on the right sides of vehicles (or uniforms) may appear to be "reversed", with the union to the observer's right instead of left as more commonly seen.
Particular days for display
The flag should especially be displayed at full staff on the following days:
- January: 1 (New Year's Day) and 20 (Inauguration Day)
- February: 12 (Lincoln's birthday) and the third Monday (Presidents' Day, originally Washington's birthday)
- May: Third Saturday (Armed Forces Day) and last Monday (Memorial Day; half-staff until noon)
- June: 14 (Flag Day)
- July: 4 (Independence Day)
- September: First Monday (Labor Day),11 (Patriot Day), and 17 (Constitution Day)
- October: Second Monday (Columbus Day) and 28 (Navy Day)
- November: November 11 (Veterans Day) and fourth Thursday (Thanksgiving Day)
- and such other days as may be proclaimed by the President of the United States; the birthdays of states (date of admission); and on state holidays.
Display at half-staff
The flag is displayed at half-staff as a sign of respect or mourning. Nationwide, this action is proclaimed by the president; state-wide or territory-wide, the proclamation is made by the governor. In addition, there is no prohibition against municipal governments, private businesses or citizens flying the flag at half-staff as a local sign of respect and mourning. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first proclamation on March 1, 1954, standardizing the dates and time periods for flying the flag at half-staff from all federal buildings, grounds, and naval vessels; other congressional resolutions and presidential proclamations ensued. However, they are only guidelines to all other entities: typically followed at state and local government facilities, and encouraged of private businesses and citizens.
To properly fly the flag at half-staff, you must first hoist it briskly to the top of the pole, then slowly lower it to three-quarters of the height of the pole. Similarly, when the flag is to be lowered from half-staff, it should be first hoisted briskly to the top of the pole, and then lowered slowly to the base of the flagpole.
Federal guidelines state the flag should be flown at half-staff at the following dates/times:
- May 15 - Peace Officers Memorial Day
- The week in which May 15 occurs - Police Week
- Last Monday in May - Memorial Day (until noon)
- July 27 - Korean War Veterans Day (expired 2003)
- September 11 - Patriot Day
- First Sunday in October - Start of Fire Prevention Week
- December 7 - Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day
- For 30 days - Death of a president or former president
- For 10 days - Death of a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice/retired chief justice, or speaker of the House of Representatives.
- From death until the day of interment - Supreme Court associate justice, member of the Cabinet, former vice president, president pro-tempore of the Senate, or the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives. Also for federal facilities within a state or territory, for the governor.
- On the day after the death - Senators, members of Congress, territorial delegates or the resident commissioner of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico
Folding for storage
Though not part of the official Flag Code, according to military custom flags should be folded into a triangular shape when not in use. (The Philippines, a former American territory, also has this custom for folding its flag.) To properly fold the flag::
- Begin by holding it waist-high with another person so that its surface is parallel to the ground.
- Fold the lower half of the stripe section lengthwise over the field of stars, holding the bottom and top edges securely.
- Fold the flag again lengthwise with the blue field on the outside.
- 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
- Turn the outer end point inward, parallel to the open edge, to form a second triangle.
- 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.
- When the flag is completely folded, only a triangular blue field of stars should be visible.
Use in funerals
Traditionally, the flag of the United States plays a role in military funerals, and occasionally in those over other civil servants (such as the President). A burial flag is draped over the deceased's casket as a pall during services. Just prior to the casket being lowered into the ground, the flag is ceremonially folded and presented to the deceased's next of kin as a token of respect.
The flag has been changed 26 times since the new, 13-state union adopted it. The 48-star version went unchanged for 47 years, until the 49-star version became official on July 4, 1959 (the first July 4 following Alaska's admission to the union on January 3, 1959); the 47-year-record of the 48-star version was the longest time the flag went unmodified until July 4, 2007, when the current 50-star version of the Flag of the United States broke the record.
At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, the United States had no official national flag. The Grand Union Flag has historically been referred to as the "First National Flag"; although it has never had any official status, it was used early in the American Revolutionary War by George Washington and formed the basis for the design of the first official U.S. flag. The origins of the design are unclear. It closely resembles the British East India Company (BEIC) flag of the same era, and an argument dating to Sir Charles Fawcett in 1937 holds that the BEIC flag indeed inspired the design. However, the BEIC flag could have from 9 to 13 stripes, and was not allowed to be flown outside the Indian Ocean. Both flags could have been easily constructed by adding white stripes to a British Red Ensign, a common flag throughout Britain and its colonies.
Another theory holds that the red-and-white stripe—and later, stars-and-stripes—motif of the flag may have been based on the Washington family coat-of-arms, which consisted of a shield "argent, two bars gules, three mullets gules" (a white shield with two red bars below three red stars). However, there is no proof that this is true and the theory is widely discredited. Washington was not involved with the committee that designed the flag in 1777, and in heraldic terms there is very little connection between the two designs. Moreover, the sequence by which the flag evolved belies any influence of the Washington arms. More likely it was based on a flag of the Sons of Liberty, one of which consisted of 13 red and white alternating horizontal stripes.