Flag of the United States

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Missing imageFIAV_63.pngImage:FIAV_63.png  Flag ratio: 10:19; nicknames: Stars and Stripes, Old Glory
Missing image

Flag ratio: 10:19; nicknames: Stars and Stripes, Old Glory

The flag of the United States consists of 13 equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white; there is a blue rectangle in the upper hoist-side corner bearing 50 small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternating with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states and the 13 stripes represent the 13 original colonies.

The United States flag is commonly called the Stars and Stripes or Old Glory. The name Old Glory was coined in the 1830s, and was of particularly common use during the era of 48-star version (1912 to 1959).



While institutions often display the flag year-round, most homeowners reserve flag display for civic holidays like Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, Presidents' Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July. On Memorial Day it is common to place small flags by war memorials and next to the graves of U.S. war dead.


To some U.S. citizens, their flag symbolizes many things. They have seen it as representing all of the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Perhaps most of all they see it as a symbol of individual and personal liberty like those put forth in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The approved method of destroying old and tattered flags consists of burning them in a simple ceremony. The flag is cut into three pieces: first a horizontal cut is made between the seventh and eighth stripes, then a vertical cut separating the star field from the seven shorter stripes. Then the three pieces are typically placed on a pyre as 'Taps' is played. Burning the flag has also been used as a deliberate act of disrespect, at times to protest actions by the United States government, or sometimes in displays of Anti-Americanism. Some groups concerned by these actions have proposed a Flag Burning Amendment that would give Congress the authority to outlaw burning the flag in disrespect or protest.

Symbolism of the design

When the Second Continental Congress proposed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, there was no particular symbolism attached to the colors or their arrangement on the flag. However, on June 20, 1782, Charles Thompson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, gave a report to the Congress defining the new Great Seal of the United States. A seal must conform to the rules of heraldry, and so meanings were attached to the colors:

The colours of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America. White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance perseverance and justice. [ContCong 22:339]

Originally, both the number of stripes and the number of stars were supposed to represent the number of states. However, this became unwieldy as states were added to the union. During the debate that eventually resulted in the Flag Act of 1818, U.S. Naval Captain Samuel C. Reid suggested that the number of stripes be set at thirteen to represent the original 13 colonies and that only the number of stars be set to the number of states. [USGov 4]

A book about the flag published by the Congress in 1977 gives further symbolism for the flag:

The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun. [USFlag.org]

Flags with similar design

Some flags from other countries share, at varying degrees, the design and/or color scheme of the United States flag. Several of the flags of the Confederate States of America also reflect the colors and design of the Stars and Stripes. Some examples of national flags sharing elements of the U.S. flag include:

Flag etiquette

There are certain guidelines for the use and display of the United States flag as outlined in the United States Flag Code of the federal government. It should be stressed that these are guidelines, not laws, which lack a penalty for those who fail to comply with them.

Standards of respect

  • The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing.
  • The flag is flown upside down only as a distress signal.
  • The flag should not be used as a drapery, or for covering a speakers desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
  • The flag should never be drawn back or bunched up in any way.
  • The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
  • The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It 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. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard.
  • The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen and members of patriotic organizations.
  • The flag should never have placed on it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind.
  • The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
  • The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle, railroad train or boat.
  • When the flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object; it should be received by waiting hands and arms. To store the flag it should be folded neatly and ceremoniously.
  • The flag should be cleaned and mended when necessary.
  • When a flag is so worn it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. (Note: Most American Legion Posts regularly conduct a dignified flag burning ceremony, often on Flag Day, June 14.)

Contrary to a commonly believed urban legend, the flag code does not state that a flag which touches the ground should be burned. Instead, the flag should be moved so it is not touching the ground.

Displaying the flag outdoors

  • When the flag is displayed from a staff projecting from a window, balcony, or a building, the union should be at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half staff. When it is displayed from the same flagpole with another flag, the flag of the United States must always be at the top except that the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for Navy personnel when conducted by a Naval chaplain on a ship at sea.
  • When the flag is displayed over a street, it should be hung vertically, with the union to the north or east. If the flag is suspended over a sidewalk, the flag's union should be farthest from the building.
  • When flown with flags of states, communities or societies on separate flag poles which are of the same height and in a straight line, the flag of the United States is always placed in the position of honor—to its own right. The other flags may be smaller but none may be larger.
  • No other flag ever should be placed above it. The flag of the United States is always the first flag raised and the last to be lowered.
  • When flown with the national banner of other countries, each flag must be displayed from a separate pole of the same height. Each flag should be the same size. They should be raised and lowered simultaneously. The flag of one nation may not be displayed above that of another nation.
  • The flag should be raised briskly and lowered slowly and ceremoniously.
  • Ordinarily it should be displayed only between sunrise and sunset. (By Presidential proclamation and law, the flag is displayed continuously at certain honored locations like the United States Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington and Lexington Green.)
  • It should be illuminated if displayed at night.
  • The flag of the United States of America is saluted as it is hoisted and lowered. The salute is held until the flag is unsnapped from the halyard or through the last note of music, whichever is the longest.

Displaying the flag indoors

  • When on display, the flag is accorded the place of honor, always positioned to its own right. Place it to the right of the speaker or staging area or sanctuary. Other flags should be to the left.
  • The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of states, localities, or societies are grouped for display.
  • When one flag is used with the flag of the United States of America and the staffs are crossed, the flag of the United States is placed on its own right with its staff in front of the other flag.
  • When displaying the flag against a wall, vertically or horizontally, the flag's union (stars) should be at the top, to the flag's own right, and to the observer's left.

Parading and saluting the flag

  • When carried in a procession, the flag should be to the right of the marchers.
  • When other flags are carried, the flag of the United States may be centered in front of the others or carried to their right. When the flag passes in a procession, or when it is hoisted or lowered, all should face the flag and salute.
  • To salute, all persons come to attention.
    • Those in uniform give the appropriate formal salute.
    • Citizens not in uniform salute by placing their right hand over the heart and men with head cover should remove it and hold it to left shoulder, hand over the heart.
    • Members of organizations in formation salute upon command of the person in charge.

Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem

  • The Pledge of Allegiance should be rendered by standing at attention, facing the flag, and saluting.
  • When the national anthem is played or sung, citizens should stand at attention and salute at the first note and hold the salute through the last note. The salute is directed to the flag, if displayed, otherwise to the music.

The flag, in mourning

  • To place the flag at half-staff (or half-mast, on ships), hoist it to the peak for an instant and lower it to a position half way between the top and bottom of the staff.
  • The flag is to be raised again to the peak for a moment before it is lowered.
  • On Memorial Day, the flag is displayed at half-staff until noon and at full staff from noon to sunset.
  • The flag is to be flown at half-staff in mourning for designated, principal government leaders and upon presidential or gubernatorial order.
  • The U.S. flag is otherwise flown at half-staff (or half-mast, on ships) when directed by the President of the United States or a state governor.
  • 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.

Folding the flag

Folding the US Flag
Folding the US Flag

Flags, when not in use, should be folded into a triangle shape. The final triangle shape result is said to invoke the image of the three-point hats popular during the American Revolutionary War. Former American territories, e.g. the Philippines, also use this method to fold their flags.

  1. To properly fold the flag, 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 triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to meet the open top edge of the flag.
  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.
  7. When the flag is completely folded, only a triangular blue field of stars should be visible.

Places where the American flag is displayed continuously

According to Presidential proclamation and in some cases, U.S. law, the American flag is displayed continuously at the following locations:


Missing image
Washington ensign: Washington's personal colors and present flag of the District of Columbia

The flag has gone through 26 changes since the new union of 13 states first adopted it. The 48-star version holds the record, 47 years, for the longest time the flag has gone unchanged. The current 50-star version will tie the record if it is still in use on July 4, 2007.

Missing image
Bennington flag. This flag was most likely used at the Battle of Bennington

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776, the most commonly flown flag was the Grand Union Flag. This flag was initially flown by George Washington and is recorded as being first raised by Washington's troops at Prospect Hill on New Year's Day in 1776. This flag formed the basis of the Stars and Stripes, consisting of 13 red and white stripes with the British Union Jack in the canton.

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, above, three mullets gules" (a white shield with two red bars below three red stars). Since 1937, this design has been used as the flag of the District of Columbia.

13-star "Betsy Ross" flag
13-star "Betsy Ross" flag

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation." Flag Day is now observed on June 14 of each year.

Missing image
15-star, 15-stripe "Star-Spangled Banner" flag

The Flag Resolution did not specify any particular arrangement for the stars. Initially, a variety of designs were used, including a circular arrangement (above left), but gradually a design featuring horizontal rows of stars emerged as the standard. As further states entered the union, extra stars and stripes were added until this proved to cause too much clutter. It was ultimately decided that there would be a star for each state, but the number of stripes would remain at thirteen to honor the original colonies. It was the 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner", now the national anthem.

48-star classic "Old Glory" flag, used -
48-star classic "Old Glory" flag, used 1912-1959

When the flag design changes, the change always takes place on July 4 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a consequence of the Flag Act of April 4, 1818. July 4, Independence Day in the United States, commemorates the founding of the nation. The most recent change, from forty-nine stars to fifty, occurred in 1960, after Hawaii gained statehood in August 1959. Before that, the admission of Alaska in January 1959 prompted the debut of a short-lived 49-star flag.

The flag flew in battle for the first time at Cooch's Bridge in Maryland on September 3, 1777 during the American Revolutionary War.

The origin of the U.S. flag design is uncertain. A popular story credits Betsy Ross for sewing the first flag from a pencil sketch of George Washington who personally commissioned her for the job. However, no evidence for this theory exists beyond Ross's own records. The British historian Sir Charles Fawcett has suggested that the design of the flag may have been derived from the flag and jack of the British East India Company. Comparisons (http://www.kimber.org/flag/index.htm) between the 2 flags support Fawcett's suggestion. Another popular theory is that the flag was designed by Francis Hopkinson. He reportedly originally wanted the stars arranged in four bands, one vertical, one horizontal, and two diagonal. By the same reports, this arrangement was rejected due to similarity to the British flag.

Historical star patterns

On the current 50-star flag, the width (fly) of the blue rectangle is 76% of the height (hoist) of the whole flag, and its height is 7 of the 13 stripes.

Note that the following star patterns are merely the usual patterns, with the exception of the 48-, 49-, and 50-star flags, as there was no official arrangement of the stars until the proclamation of the 48-star flag by President William Howard Taft in 1912. For alternate versions, see this page (http://www.fotw.net/flags/us-ststr.html) at Flags of the World

Patterns and Symmetry

  • symmetry with respect to horizontal axis: 50, 49, 48, 46, 44, 38, 37, 36, 34, 33, 32, 30, 28, 26, 24, 20, 15, 13 (standard)
  • symmetry with respect to vertical axis: 51, 50, 48, 46, 45, 44, 37, 36, 35, 34, 33, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23, 21, 20, 15, 13 (standard and Betsy Ross)
  • both, hence also point symmetry: 50, 48, 46, 44, 37, 36, 34, 33, 32, 45, 28, 26, 24, 20, 15, 13 (standard and Betsy Ross)
  • no symmetry: 43
  • chessboard pattern: 51, 50, 49, 45, 15, 13 (standard)
  • rectangle of stars: 48, 35, 30, 28, 24, 20

The United States Army's Institute of Heraldry has plans for flags with up to 56 stars using a similar staggered star arrangement in case additional states accede.

There are ongoing statehood movements in Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and New York City. Other insular areas such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa may eventually become states as well.

See also


Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjc.html), ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37).
Template:Web reference
Template:Book reference
  • Available as a 1.78 MB PDF at GPO Access (http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=105_cong_documents&docid=f:sd013.105.pdf)

External links

National flags
List of national flags | List of national coats of arms
de:Flagge der USA

eo:usona flago fr:Drapeau des 蓆ats-Unis ko:미국 국기 it:Bandiera statunitense he:דגל ארצות הברית lt:JAV vėliava nl:Vlag van de Verenigde Staten ja:アメリカ合衆国の国旗 no:Amerikas forente staters flagg pl:Flaga Stanów Zjednoczonych pt:Bandeira dos Estados Unidos da Am閞ica simple:Flag of the United States sv:USA zh:美国国旗


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