American flag hanging from front porch of house

As a leading symbol of the United States and its people, the U.S. flag is a common sight at public buildings throughout the country. Many Americans also choose to fly or hang the flag at their residences or on other privately owned property. If you display a flag at your home or business, you should take a moment to familiarize yourself with the time-honored practices and protocols associated with its proper usage.

Correct Display and Treatment of the American Flag

Most of the rules for handling the American flag are based on old-fashioned common sense and respect with a healthy dose of military tradition thrown in.

When and Where to Display the American Flag

According to the official U.S. Flag Code and various executive orders, it's appropriate to display the American flag year-round and especially on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veteran's Day, Armed Forces Day, and other patriotic, religious, and secular holidays. The U.S. Flag Code also states that the flag should always be flown at schools, government buildings, polling places, and ports of entry into the country.

Keep the Flag off the Ground

Modern flag etiquette dictates that a flag should never be permitted to touch the ground. Traditional flag protocol takes this a step further by declaring that a flag should never be permitted to make contact with anything beneath it. This might include chairs, tables, steps, boxes, concrete surfaces, or anything else that happens to be nearby as the flag is being raised, lowered, carried, or folded.

Fly Your Flag at Half-staff at the Appropriate Times

Lowering the flag to half-staff is done in observation of days of national significance and times of mourning. Specific rules govern the timing and occasions when flags are flown at half-staff, but this practice is commonly observed after the death of a U.S. president or other government official and in honor of past military events of enduring importance. The U.S. president may also designate other days to lower the flag to half-staff. When displaying a flag at half-staff, it should first be briefly raised to the top of the flagpole and then lowered to the half-staff position.

How Not to Display the American Flag

In addition to knowing how to treat and fly the flag of the United States, there are a few things to avoid when displaying your flag.

Don't Fly It Below or Behind Other Flags

When flown as a part of a larger flag grouping, the American flag should be higher than or in front of the other flags. The Stars and Stripes should always be at the center or the right of a flag assembly in parades, and no other flags should ever pass in front of the American flag during ceremonies or observances. The flag should also never be displayed on flat, horizontal surfaces.

Don't Fly It at Night Without Illumination

If you plan to fly your flag at night, it should be illuminated by a floodlight. If you can't provide proper illumination or if your lighting unit is temporarily out of service, the correct thing to do is bring the flag in at sunset and hoist it back up the next day.

Don't Display a Tattered or Damaged Flag

A flag that's ripped or otherwise damaged should be immediately removed from the flagpole or holder and replaced by a new flag or repaired before being displayed again.

How to Properly Hang the United States Flag

Strict guidance governs the exact positioning of the flag when it's displayed as a banner as well as when it's flown from a standard flagpole. The flag itself should never be used as a bunting and should always take a place of respect and precedence.

Hanging a Flag Vertically

When displaying a flag vertically, the blue square, known as the union, should be located at the top left for observers standing in front of the flag. The flag may either be free-hanging or flat against a vertical surface and should never be bunched up or gathered.

Flying and Non-vertical Flag Hanging

Flags flown on a flagpole should be attached with the union up and immediately adjacent to the pole. Flags that are hung horizontally should be positioned with the union at the observer's top left. As with vertically hung flags, a horizontally hung flag may be placed flat against a solid surface or left free to move with the breeze.

Caring for and Storing Your American Flag

Proper care will go a long way toward preserving the life and appearance of your flag.

Keep Your Flag in Good Repair

You should periodically inspect your flag for small rips, weak seams, and other potential issues that could lead to further damage. Any flag with damage that's visible from the ground should be removed from display immediately and either repaired or discarded.

Fold the Flag Before Storing

Every good Scout knows how to fold a flag for a display case or long-term storage. If you're not sure how it's done, you can consult one of the many available online resources that provide pictures and details. The flag should only be folded when completely dry to prevent mold and mildew, and it should be pressed to remove creases before displaying again. Flags that are mounted to hand-held flagpoles may be tightly rolled up around the pole.

Regularly Wash and Dry Your Flag

Most commercially available American flags have product labels that provide information on how to clean them. Depending on the material and manner of fabrication, the flag may be washed in a washing machine, hand-washed, or professionally dry cleaned. The flag should then be dried in a dryer or on a clothesline and ironed if needed prior to rehanging.

How to Properly Retire a Flag

Old, worn American flags should never be discarded in the garbage. There are proper ways to go about disposing of old flags with respect and consideration.

When to Dispose of an Old Flag

A flag that has become faded, ripped, mildewed, or otherwise damaged is no longer suitable for display. Such a flag has served its useful purpose and should be discarded unless it can be cleaned, repaired, or restored.

Dispose of Old Flags in a Respectful Manner

The honorable way to dispose of an American flag is by burning. Burning the flag for disposal purposes differs greatly from a flag-burning that's carried out as a means of protest. Flag disposal ceremonies are solemn events conducted by scout troops, veterans' organizations, and other patriotic groups that treat the flags they are discarding with respect and dignity at every point along the way.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Proper Use and Handling of the U.S. Flag

What's the Difference Between Half-staff and Half-mast?

Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, half-staff generally refers to flags that are flown on land while half-mast refers to flags displayed on the masts of ships and other watercraft.

Can a Flag Be Left on Display in the Rain?

If a flag is made of resilient, weather-resistant material, it's perfectly acceptable to fly it in rainy or stormy weather.

Should Flags That Touch the Ground Be Destroyed?

Flags should be prevented from touching the ground or becoming soiled, but accidents do happen. If a flag can be cleaned or is otherwise unaffected, it can still be flown or displayed after making contact with the ground.

How Do I Frame a Flag for Display?

For long-term display, a flag is ideally placed under glass in a flat frame or folded and stored in a specially designed case or shadowbox.

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