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How to Fly the American Flag

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Flag Day is June 14. We thought it might be a good time to take a look at the rules for respectfully displaying the American flag. Let’s dig into the United States Flag Code.

When did these rules fall into place?
Surprisingly late in American history. On Flag Day in 1923, a group of organizations headed by the American Legion outlined the National Flag Code as a set of advisory rules for displaying the flag. These rules became law during World War II and form the bulk of what’s now the United States Flag Code.

These rules cover all manner of extremely specific situations, but they’re all governed by the same basic principle: the flag is one of the most visible and important symbols of our country, so we should treat it with respect.

When is it acceptable to fly the flag upside down?
The flag code allows for flying the flag with the union (the blue field of stars) down only "as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."

We know that the American flag is supposed to be displayed in a position of prominence over other flags on American soil. Are there any exceptions to this rule?
Section 7 of the flag code provides one major exception: the flag of the United Nations can be flown in the position of honor or prominence at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

The only other exception involves church services performed by naval chaplains while at sea. In these instances, the church’s flag may fly above the American flag during the service.

Are you really supposed to lower the flag at sunset?
You don’t have to. While the flag code notes that displaying the flag only from sunrise to sunset is "universal custom," it makes an exception: “However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.”

When should the flag be displayed?
Section 6 of the flag code states, "The flag should be displayed on all days." However, the code goes on to say that the flag should especially (emphasis added) be displayed on the following days: New Year’s Day; Inauguration Day; Martin Luther King Jr. Day; Lincoln’s birthday; Washington’s birthday; Easter; Mother’s Day; Armed Forces Day; Memorial Day; Flag Day; Father’s Day; Independence Day; National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day; Labor Day; Constitution Day; Columbus Day; Navy Day; Veterans Day; Thanksgiving; Christmas; state holidays; states’ dates of admission; and "such other days as may be proclaimed by the President of the United States."

But the same section also specifies that "the flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed." (The American Legion suggests that all-weather means nylon or similar materials.) The flag code is silent as to what to do if there’s going to be a storm on Independence Day, but since most flags for outdoor use are nowadays made of nylon or polyester, the issue shouldn't come up (but maybe leave the cotton flag indoors).

Where should the flag be displayed?
Section 6 of the flag code covers this question, too. The flag should be displayed in or near every schoolhouse on school days, on or near the main administration building of every public institution each day, and in or near every polling place on election days.

Why doesn't, say, the Dream Team take the courts in American-flag jerseys at the Olympics?
The flag code thought of that one, too. Section 8 of the code covers "Respect for [the] Flag," and it explicitly states, "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations."

Any other restrictions on wearing the flag?
According to Section 8, "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery." (The section also states that the flag shouldn't be used "for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever," or printed on paper napkins or anything “designed for temporary use and discard.”)

What about those American flag lapel pins that so many folks wear?
The flag code thought of that one, too. Section 8 rather elegantly states, "The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart."

Is it true you have to retire and burn a flag that touches the ground?
No, that’s a myth. The flag code is quite a bit more realistic about this situation. While the code states, "The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise," there’s no rule saying that a flag that slips has to immediately be burned.

Instead, the code stipulates, "The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning." Unless hitting the ground once renders the flag unfit for display, there’s no need to burn it.

What’s the penalty for breaking the flag code?
There generally isn’t one. The flag code is an odd duck in this regard. As part of the United States Code, the flag code is technically federal law. But unless you live in Washington, D.C., the code doesn't outline any measures for enforcement or punishment. (More on that in a bit.) Basically, the flag code is a set of advisory rules for Americans who want to know the proper and respectful way to display their flag.

Individual states used to have their own prohibitions on and penalties for desecrating the flag, but the 1989 Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson invalidated these laws as infringements on free speech. Congress responded by passing the Flag Protection Act, which made flag desecration a federal crime. The Supreme Court struck down this law in the 1990 case United States v. Eichman.

For those who live in the District of Columbia, Section 3 (which some place as part of the flag code, while others don’t [PDF]) places restrictions on the use of the flag for advertising and sets out a punishment of "a fine not exceeding $100 or by imprisonment for not more than thirty days, or both." While it's unclear if anyone has been prosecuted by this law, as the Congressional Research Service explained a few years ago, "status of these statutes and cases can not be taken for granted in light of Eichman and Johnson [PDF]."

Can anyone stop me from displaying the flag?
In 2006 the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 officially became law. This law basically says that no condo board, housing co-op, or residential real estate management group can restrict a person’s right to display the American flag on their own residential property as long as the display jibes with federal law and is reasonable.

What days is the flag always flown at half-staff?
The flag always flies on half-staff on Patriot Day (September 11 of each year), Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7), and on all Federal buildings for the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service (the first Sunday in October). On Memorial Day, the flag flies at half-staff until noon, at which point it is raised to the top of the staff.

What if I can’t fly my flag at half-staff?
Some flags, like the ones commonly seen in school classrooms or on houses, are fixed in a certain position on their poles. How does one handle the sticky situation of a flag that physically can’t be flown at half-staff? The United States Code doesn't cover this conundrum, but the American Legion advocates adding a black ribbon to the top of the flag’s pole to indicate mourning.

What about adding new stars for new states?
Should we ever pick up a 51st state, Section 2 of the flag code stipulates that the state will get a new star on the flag. It won’t be an overnight process, though. The new star will make its debut on the first Fourth of July following the state’s formal admission into the union.

This article originally appeared in 2011.

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Live Smarter
Why the Best Time to Book Your Thanksgiving Travel Is Right Now
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You're never going to get a true steal on holiday plane tickets, but if you want to avoid spending your whole salary flying to visit your relatives over Thanksgiving, the time is nigh to start picking seats. That's according to the experts at Condé Nast Traveler, who cite data from Expedia and Skyscanner.

The latter found that it was cheapest to secure Thanksgiving tickets 11 weeks before the holiday. That means that you should have bought your ticket around September 4, but it's not too late; you can still save if you book now. Expedia's data shows that the cheapest time to buy is 61 to 90 days before you leave, so you still have until September 23 to snag a seat on a major airline without paying an obscene premium. (Relatively speaking, of course.)

When major travel holidays aren't involved, data shows that the best time to book a plane ticket is on a Sunday, at least 21 days ahead of your travel. But given that millions of other Americans also want to fly on the exact same days during Thanksgiving and Christmas, the calculus of booking is a bit more high stakes. If you sleep on tickets this month, you could be missing out on hundreds of dollars in savings. In the recent study cited by Condé Nast Traveler, Expedia found that people booking during the 61- to 90-day window saved up to 10 percent off the average ticket price, while last-minute bookers who bought tickets six days or less from their travel day paid up to 20 percent more.

Once you secure those Turkey Day tickets, you've got a new project: Your Christmas flights. By Hopper's estimates, those flights rise in price by $1.50 every day between the end of October and December 15 (after which they get even more expensive). However, playing the waiting game can be beneficial, too. Expedia found that the cheapest time to book Christmas flights was just 14 to 20 days out.

Before you buy, we also recommend checking CheapAir.com, which tracks 11,000 different airfares for flights around the holidays to analyze price trends. Because as miserable as holiday travel can be, you don't want to pay any more than you have to.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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Big Questions
Why Can’t You Wear White After Labor Day?
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Wearing white in the summer makes sense. Desert peoples have known for thousands of years that white clothing seems to keep you a little bit cooler than other colors. But wearing white only during the summer? While no one is completely sure exactly when or why this fashion rule came into effect, our best guess is that it had to do with snobbery in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The wives of the super-rich ruled high society with an iron fist after the Civil War. As more and more people became millionaires, though, it was difficult to tell the difference between respectable old money families and those who only had vulgar new money. By the 1880s, in order to tell who was acceptable and who wasn’t, the women who were already “in” felt it necessary to create dozens of fashion rules that everyone in the know had to follow. That way, if a woman showed up at the opera in a dress that cost more than most Americans made in a year, but it had the wrong sleeve length, other women would know not to give her the time of day.

Not wearing white outside the summer months was another one of these silly rules. White was for weddings and resort wear, not dinner parties in the fall. Of course it could get extremely hot in September, and wearing white might make the most sense, but if you wanted to be appropriately attired you just did not do it. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, and society eventually adopted it as the natural endpoint for summer fashion.

Not everyone followed this rule. Even some socialites continued to buck the trend, most famously Coco Chanel, who wore white year-round. But even though the rule was originally enforced by only a few hundred women, over the decades it trickled down to everyone else. By the 1950s, women’s magazines made it clear to middle class America: White clothing came out on Memorial Day and went away on Labor Day.

These days the fashion world is much more relaxed about what colors to wear and when, but every year you will still hear people say that white after Labor Day is unacceptable, all thanks to some snobby millionaires who decided that was a fashion no-no more than 100 years ago.

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