Ruth Steinkraus Cohen (Saugatuck River) Bridge, Westport, CT. Credit: westportnow.com

A few weeks back, my kids noticed a flag flying at half-staff and asked why the flag wasn’t flying at the top of the pole. As I was describing the different “rules” associated with flying our flag, it occurred to me that this would be a great post, as Memorial Day and summer approach – these are all great guidelines to teach your kids.

There are many flag traditions that are not observed broadly by the general public even though, in theory, they are supposed to be. I have included some of those rules below in addition to rules for the general population (as opposed to military personnel, other uniformed individuals, or government agencies).

(Note: I have highlighted in ITALICS common violations of the rules)

1. Displaying the Flag

  • The American flag is meant to be flow in a position of highest respect. If you fly the flag adjacent to, or in conjunction with another flag (such as a state flag), the American flag should always appear on the top.
  • When raising more than one flag, the American flag should be raised first and lowered last.
  • If flown at half staff, the flag should be raised to the top of the flagpole, then lowered to half-staff position. When lowering the flag, it should be re-raised to the top, and then fully lowered.
  • Not really a rule that the general population will ever need to know, but interesting nonetheless: When the flag is displayed over a street, it should be hung vertically, with the union to the north or east. If the street runs north to south, the stars should face east. If the street runs east to west, the stars should face north. If the flag is suspended over a sidewalk, the flag’s union should be farthest from the building.
  • If positioned on a stage next to a speaker, the flag should appear to the speaker’s right (viewer’s left).
  • If adhered to the window of a vehicle, the flag is to be adhered from the inside (this fact, I never knew!).
  • If a flag is flown on a pole at an angle, the union should always appear at the PEAK (hence, it may appear as if it is in the right-side position depending on which side you view it from).
  • The American flag should always appear to the rightmost position (viewer’s left). If the flag is crossed with another flag, the American flag’s staff should be in the frontmost position.

If crossed with another flag’s staff, the American flag staff should be in the FRONT. Also, if appearing on a flagpole at an angle, the union should always be at the peak position (and hence may appear as if it is on the RIGHT side of the flag))

  • Probably one of the most common errors made: When displaying the flag, regardless of whether positioned vertically or horizontally, the union (the stars) should always appear to the viewer’s left. I have heard, although am not sure, that this is supposed to coincide with the position of the viewer’s heart.

If this is the way the flag appears from the viewer’s perspective, it is backwards. The union (stars) should appear to the left from the viewer’s perspective.

  • The flag is really intended to be flown from sun-up to sundown; however, if you choose to fly after sundown, the flag should be properly illuminated.

2. Wearing or Printing the Flag

  • Flag pins and other patches can be worn but the same rules apply – the union should appear to the top of the flag position and on the viewer’s left (wearer’s right).
  • Lapel pins should be pinned to the wearer’s left side, near the heart.
  • Traditional etiquette dictates that if you want to show a symbol of patriotism, red/white/blue bunting should be worn in lieu of the flag, but see point below.
  • Traditional flag etiquette indicates that the flag should not be worn as clothing or other costumes, but this has changed over time. I recall seeing a discussion thread during the Olympics regarding the athletes wearing their flags before and after competition, and while some were offended by it, most believed that it was a gesture of pride.

Traditional etiquette states that the flag should not be worn in clothing or other costume.

  • The American flag should never be used in any sort of advertising – and should not be printed on cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins or disposable items. Again, I think this is more widely accepted now, as many promotional materials have the flag printed on it.

3. Carrying and Disposal

  • The American flag should never be used for carrying or disposal of an item. It should also never be used as a cover.
  • The American flag should never touch the ground or any other object; particularly when being lowered – it should be removed from the flagpole and placed into the arms of the carrier.
  • When stored, the flag should be neatly folded, preferably into a triangle.
  • If a flag becomes tattered, it should either be mended or disposed of properly (This one makes me nuts. I drive by a flag on my way to work that is stuck on a tree branch and torn in the middle. The owner has to pass this flag EVERY DAY, and I feel as if leaving it up on the flagpole in the state that it’s in is lazy and disrespectful).
  • There are proper rules for flag disposal. Flags should never be thrown in the trash – the easiest way to properly dispose of a torn flag is to contact your local agencies (scouts will often do it, as will local VFW, some police stations, etc. A simple search will probably render lots of local options). If no option is available, the flag should be properly folded and burned.