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13 Rules for Displaying the American Flag

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With Memorial Day, Independence Day, and a few others, there's no lack of patriotic holidays in the United States. But one in particular is all about the star spangled banner that flies o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Flag Day—June 14—is the official commemoration of the stars and stripes as the country's standard.

The flag was officially adopted on June 14, 1777 at the Second Continental Congress, and since then, Americans have flown it at their homes, written songs about it and a pledge to it, and emblazoned it on everything from sunglasses to swim trunks. An estimated 150 million American flags are sold every year, with 76 percent of Americans 65 years and older saying they or their family owns a flag. Even 62 percent of 18-24 year olds say they or their family owns one, according to the National Retail Federation [PDF].

Such an important emblem of American ideals brings with it strict decorum. In 1923, a group of organizations headed by the American Legion outlined the National Flag Code as a set of rules on how to correctly display the flag, which were then turned into law during World War II as the United States Flag Code [PDF]. There are some obvious stipulations, like making sure the flag never hits the ground. But there are some out-of-left-field requirements as well. For instance, per the code, the flag is to be considered a living thing.

Just in case you need a quick rundown of the flag dos-and-don'ts, here are some lesser-known rules for displaying the flag this Flag Day.

1. YOU CAN FLY THE FLAG UPSIDE DOWN.

A protester marches with an upside-down American flag.
A protester marches with an upside-down American flag.
Edward Linsmier, Getty Images

The code goes to extreme lengths to define the rules of the flag, especially with regard to the position of the "union," or the blue field with the 50 state stars, being in certain positions. Obviously the best way to fly the flag is on a pole with the union up, but you can also fly it upside down—with one catch: you have to be in some serious trouble to do so.

Fly the flag upside down only "as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."

2. NO FLAG CAN HOLD PROMINENCE OVER THE AMERICAN FLAG—THOUGH THERE ARE TWO EXCEPTIONS.

American flag over white flag
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For Americans, Old Glory is tops when it comes to the flag-flying game. But despite the general rule that it should always be the most prominent, it's not always the most important.

Section 7 of the flag code decrees that no flag should be placed above the flag of the United States, but one exception is that the flag of the United Nations can be flown in a superior position, although only at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

One other exception involves a church's pennant being allowed to fly above the American flag during services performed by naval chaplains while at sea. As for your house? It looks like you should definitely make sure the American flag is up top.

3. YOU CAN FLY MULTIPLE COUNTRY FLAGS, BUT OLD GLORY GETS DIBS.

The American, Mexican, and Arizona flags hanging on poles.
Ken Bosma, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If, say, Mexican-Americans want to display their heritage with the stars and stripes and the bandera nacional together, both are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height, and they should be equal in size.

But on U.S. soil the American flag should always be placed in a position of honor, meaning fly the flag to its own right (the viewer's left). If you have a few different country flags, the flags should be raised and lowered at the same time.

4. OTHER FLAGS GET SIMILAR TREATMENT.

American flag and Texas flag
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Fly your gay pride flag, your Chicago Cubs "W" banner, a ceremonial POW flag, your state standard, or any other kind of banner all you want. But pair it with the American flag, and a few different rules must take effect.

The flag of the United States should be at the center and at the highest point when grouped together. If you put multiple flags on a halyard of your boat, the U.S. flag should always be at the top.

5. YOU CAN PUT THE FLAG ON YOUR VEHICLE, BUT ONLY IN A CERTAIN WAY.

The presidential motorcade shows the proper flag placement for the front of a car.
The presidential motorcade shows the proper flag placement for the front of a car.
TIM SLOAN, AFP/Getty Images

When you want to get patriotic on the go, the code specifies that the flag shouldn't be draped over any sort of means of transportation, be it car, motorcycle, train, boat, subway, dune buggy, or whatever. Instead, it should be either fixed on a pole to the chassis or clamped on the right fender.

6. DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT LAYING YOUR FLAG ON A PARADE FLOAT.

Participants on horseback hold U.S. flags during the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

Parades are a big part of American celebrations, and you'd better believe there are floats in those parades. These snail-paced, often extravagantly decorated vehicles might take ages to go a few blocks, but just because the flag might not catch wind doesn't mean it should be draped either. Treat a float like any other means of transportation and fly the flag vertically from a securely fastened staff.

If you're in a parade and carrying the flag in procession with other flags, the U.S. flag should be either on the marching right (like stage right) or in the front and center of the line.

7. YOU CAN FLY THE FLAG ALL YEAR ROUND IF IT'S NYLON.

Two flags hanging from houses on a quiet street.
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If a storm's coming, take down your flag. It's as easy as that. Despite the fact that the code says "the flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement," it does make an exception for "when an all weather flag is displayed."

An all-weather flag is one made from nylon, polyester, or other non-absorbent materials, which shouldn't be hard to find—most flags nowadays are meant to be flown outdoors and are made of all-weather materials. Best to leave that old cotton flag properly stored indoors.

8. GET THE UNION SIDE RIGHT WHEN HANGING THE FLAG FROM A WINDOW.

American flag hanging in the window of a Banana Republic
Mario Tama, Getty Images

When you don't have a flag pole at your disposal, you can just hang the flag—but make sure it's the right positioning. When displayed either horizontally against a wall or vertically hanging in a window, the union portion of the flag should be the uppermost part and to the flag's own right—that is, to the observer's left.

9. YOU CAN STILL FLY YOUR FLAG IN THE DARK.

American flag at night
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Lowering or taking down the flag at sunset isn't strictly enforced by the code, it's just a "universal custom." Yet when "a patriotic effect is desired," you can let that thing soar at all hours of the day and night so long as it's "properly illuminated" during the evening and hours of darkness.

10. YOU NEED TO BE GEOGRAPHICALLY INCLINED WITH YOUR STREET FLAG.

American flag on city street
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Cities and towns across the country might want to adorn their fair streets with the stars and stripes, but even that has a strict set of rules.

When a city wants to fly the flag over the middle of the street, it needs to be suspended vertically with the union side of the flag pointing north on an east/west street or to the east on a north/south street.

11. MISSING SOME STARS ON YOUR FLAG? NO PROBLEM.

American Revolutionary Flag
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Say you dig up a flag from before Hawaii and Alaska joined the United States. What's a person to do if they want to fly their throwback flag with only 48 stars? Unless you are an official curator of a museum of American history, you will be fined. Just kidding—display your historical flag with pride.

The 50-star flag is the official flag, designated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 (although the design wouldn't be official until July 4, 1960). But any personal flags lacking the full 50 stars may be displayed as long as they are in good condition, and they should be treated with the same respect and rules as the official flag.

12. MAKE SURE TO DISPLAY IT DURING PARTICULAR DAYS.

house with Americana
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You don't necessarily have to mark your calendars since the code specifies how the flag "should be displayed on all days," but it does call out some highlights—so maybe mark your calendar after all.

Make sure to fly that flag on New Year's Day; Inauguration Day; Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday; Lincoln's birthday; Washington's birthday; National Vietnam War Veterans Day; 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."

13. YOUR RIGHTS TO FLY THE FLAG IN AN APARTMENT BUILDING ARE UNCERTAIN.

American flag on apartment building
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Sometimes it might seem a bit difficult to fly your flag when you live in a building with other tenants. The people in 3C could complain that the flag whipping in the wind is too loud or that it is obstructing their view. Most rental tenants and owners of co-ops and condominiums have to adhere to a certain set of ground rules that restricts flag-flying.

In general, your right to display the United States flag is protected by federal law via the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005. But it's not a complete protection. The law specifies that a condominium association, cooperative association, or residential real estate management association can put in "any reasonable restriction pertaining to the time, place, or manner of displaying the flag of the United States necessary to protect a substantial interest." So if the flag is a potential hazard or excessively restricts neighbors' views, you might be out of luck. It's also generally agreed that the law doesn't protect renters, adding an entirely different set of complications. You'll just have to figure out how to work around any confines your home happens to have.

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10 Things You Didn't Know About the Fourth of July
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With 242 years of tradition behind it, the Fourth of July is one of America’s most cherished holidays. It's when we celebrate our nation's mythology with a day off, a backyard barbecue, and plenty of fireworks. But with all that history, you'd be forgiven if you didn't know quite everything about July 4. So from the true story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to some staggering hot dog statistics, here are 10 things you might not know about the Fourth of July.

1. THE DECLARATION WASN'T SIGNED ON JULY 4 (OR IN JULY AT ALL).

John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons

It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn't quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

It's now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on the Fourth of July—that's just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.

So if you want to sound like a history buff at your family's barbecue this year, point out that we're celebrating the adoption of the Declaration, not the signing of it.

2. THE FIRST CELEBRATIONS WEREN'T MUCH DIFFERENT THAN TODAY'S.

After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

"The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."

There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.

3. EATING SALMON ON THE FOURTH IS A TRADITION IN NEW ENGLAND.

The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.

To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you'll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you're really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)

4. MASSACHUSETTS WAS THE FIRST STATE TO RECOGNIZE THE HOLIDAY.

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn't until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.

However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday "within the District of Columbia" only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.

5. THE OLDEST ANNUAL FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION IS HELD IN BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND.

Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as "America's Oldest Fourth of July Celebration," the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.

The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2017 will be its 232nd entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a "patriotic exercise"—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.

6. AND THE SHORTEST PARADE IS IN APTOS, CALIFORNIA.

From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there's a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.

7. THERE ARE AROUND 15,000 INDEPENDENCE DAY FIREWORKS CELEBRATIONS EVERY YEAR.

Fireworks burst over New York City.
JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren't exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at around $2.5 million.

8. WE'LL EAT AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF HOT DOGS.

Around 150 million, to be more specific—that's how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

In 2016, 70 of those dogs were scarfed down by Joey Chestnut, who won the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition for the ninth time.

9. AND WE'LL SPEND BILLIONS ON FOOD.

Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $7.1 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.

Then comes the booze. The Beer Institute estimates that Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $450 million on wine.

10. THREE PRESIDENTS HAVE DIED, AND ONE WAS BORN, ON THE FOURTH.

You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They're not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country's 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

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These Digital Fireworks Displays Can Help You Celebrate July 4 Wherever You Live
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Every Fourth of July needs to be capped off with a dazzling fireworks display, but depending on where you live, getting to one isn’t always easy. Many states have strict laws around which fireworks you can and can’t use on your own, and if there’s no public show in your town, you may be totally out of luck.

If you’re still craving a show, though, AtmosFX’s digital fireworks displays may be your best bet. These digital, animated fireworks shows can be downloaded from the company’s site where you can then either display them on your TV or project them onto surfaces around your home or backyard. The video options available allow for some customization, so you can either stick with a generic fireworks display or choose some patriotic colors along with a "Happy Fourth of July" message.

The company’s various digital fireworks videos come in at a 1080p HD resolution with sound effects that can be adjusted and customized—which is the perfect alternative to those decibel-busting fireworks displays designed to frighten your beloved pets. Some videos are meant to be displayed on TVs and monitors, while others are for wall projections and window displays. You can buy these à la carte for $6.99 each, or together in a package for $20.

Whether you live in an apartment, a state that prohibits fireworks, or are expecting some wet weather for your Independence Day party, look into a digital alternative by heading to the AtmosFX website.

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