The annual observance of National Flag Day is held each June 14 to commemorate the adoption of the Stars and Strips as the U.S. flag by Congress on June 14, 1777. However, the tradition began in 1885, when a 19-year-old school teacher, Bernard J. Cigrand, assigned his class to write essays on the flag and its significance. For years Cigrand continued to advocate June 14 as an observance of “Flag Birthday.”
In 1889, New York kindergarten teacher George Balch planned ceremonies for his school to be held on June 14, and later the State Board of Education in New York adopted his idea. In 1891 the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia celebrated a June 14 Flag Day, and the following year the New York Society of the Sons of the Revolution picked up the idea. But it was not until April 25, 1893 that there was government involvement, when the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames of America requested that the mayor of Philadelphia, other authorities, and all private citizens use June 14 to display the American flag.
Over the years the idea caught on, and there were a number of organizations requesting that June 14 be an official national observance of the flag, including the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Resolution, the governor of New York, and the American Flag Day Association, and an increasing number of major cities began observing the day. After three decades of local and state celebrations President Woodrow Wilson officially established the 1777 anniversary of the flag resolution as June 14 on May 30, 1916.
As American celebrate the flag on June 14, the Flag Rules and Regulations website offers instructions for properly displaying it. As most people know, the American flag is always flown on top of a single pole, never beneath the flag of a state or another country’s. The flag is typically flown from sunrise to sunset, and it should not be flown at night without a spotlight on it. The flag is to be raised “briskly” and lowered slowly. The blue field containing the stars, known as the “union,” is always flown at the top, although the Flag Code states that it may be flown upside down as a signal of “dire distress,” involving extreme danger to life. The union is always on the left when the flag is displayed in print.
There are official days when the flag is flown at half-staff. These include Peace Officers Memorial Day on May 15, the last Monday in May for Memorial Day (half-staff until noon), September 11, the Sunday closest to October 9 for Fire Prevention Week, and December 7 for National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. Otherwise it is displayed at half-staff only at the direction of the U.S. President.
Confusion frequently arises when displaying the flag in a suspended manner, such as from the eaves of a roof, or over a street. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) instructions say to place the union facing either north or east. If displayed inside a building the union goes to the observer’s left as they enter the building.
There are certain rules for things that should not be done with the flag which are often broken. Most people know it should never touch the ground. Other lesser known rules exist. The flag should always be carried aloft, never be horizontally or flat. It should not be used as wearing apparel, drapery, or bedding and should not be used on costumes or athletic uniforms. It is permissible to attach a flag patch to the uniforms of military personnel, police officers, firefighters, or patriotic organizations. A flag should never be used for promotion or advertising purposes, and it should not be printed on anything intended for temporary use and discarded, such as boxes or paper napkins.
Although many communities observed Flag Day for years following Wilson’s proclamation, it was not until President Truman signed an Act of Congress on August 3, 1949, that June 14 each year was designated as an official national event. The day is intended for Americans to show respect for our flag as representative of our unity as a nation and our independence.
By Beth A. Balen