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Proper U.S. Flag etiquette often overlooked

“You’re a grand old flag, a high flying flag and forever in peace may you wave.”

These words, taken from George M. Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” have been heard, sang and cheered many times since they were written in 1906, and with Independence Day upon us, there is no better time to think about proper care, display and disposal of the American flag.

The National Flag Code was adopted June 14, 1923, by the National Flag Conference to provide guidance, based on U.S. Army and Navy procedures, on the proper display and care of the flag. In December 1942 Congress passed Public Law 829; Chapter 806 Exact Rules for use and Display of the Flag (36 U.S.C. 173-178).

Retired U.S. Army Col. David Johnson, who now works with local Boy Scouts to ensure flag protocol is properly followed, said the biggest mistake he sees in civilian use of the flag is improper hanging.

“If the flag is hung vertically, the blue part with the stars, which is called the Union, is still supposed to stay in the top left corner. What usually happens is they just flip it over and the Union side is now in the top right.”

Johnson said mistakes sometimes are made when more than one flag, such as the U.S. flag and a state flag, are being displayed together.

According to the U.S. flag code, the U.S. flag should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of states or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.

The code goes on to say when flags of two or more nations are displayed they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height. The flags should be of approximately equal size. International usage forbids the display of a flag of one nation above that of another nation in times of peace.

“A lot of that just has to do with people not knowing any better,” Johnson said.

The code also states: “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.

“A lot of people make a big mistake doing that. The reason being is they lose the history that goes with the flag. If there is a flag that is flown over Farragut Middle School and now they want a new flag, if they burn the old one, it is gone forever, where they probably should spend the money and frame it,” Johnson said.

But if there is no other recourse than to burn the flag, according to the code, it should be done with respect and in some sort of ceremony.

If you do not feel comfortable disposing of your flag yourself, many organizations, such as some American Legion offices and Boy and Girl Scouts, will take your flag and dispose of it for you.

For those planning an Independence Day cookout complete with patriotic tableware, beware the flag imprinted disposable plates and napkins.

The flag code reads: “It should not be embroidered on such objects as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”

To read a copy of the flag code in its entirety, visit

Johnson also noted another site.

“The best reference is a Web site called

“If you look in there it will give you the flag protocol. It gives all the details,” he said.


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