History Lesson on How to Fold the U.S. Flag

You’ve seen it on TV and movies, before sports games and during funerals. The men in white gloves and perfectly pressed military uniforms, pulling the American flag taught above a casket or a playing field. Our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, is sung. Or rifle shots are ceremonially fired. Now it’s time to fold the flag. Generally, it happens the same way every time: First, one fold is made down the middle, lengthwise, and then a second. Starting from the end with only stripes a small triangle is folded in. That triangle is folded into another and then another. Forty-five degrees by forty-five degrees, the whole of America’s favorite symbol gets wrapped into a triangle of stars. This ceremony isn’t law. But as uniformly as this is performed, it sure looks like it is.

The Star Spangled Banner

The flag of the United States took on national importance during the war of 1812. Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner gave poetic expression to what a nation fighting to survive looks like. In the process, he also gave a special place of honor to the American flag. Previous to his inspired song the flag was used to designate forts and ships as belonging to a country fighting for or to keep independence. After the Civil War, veterans bucked some attempts to commercialize and politicize the flag and called for restrictions in how it was used. Post World War I, when patriotism was again at a high, a conference was called to organize rules of conduct regarding how the flag could be treated. The first Flag Conference was held on June 14, 1923, recognized still today as Flag Day.

The Flag Code

Invested veterans’ organizations and representatives from some military branches were present at that conference and most of flag etiquette stems from it. The Flag Code gave rules regarding the ways to display the flag, what to do when a flag passes you in a parade—veterans of the armed service are to salute while those without military experience are to put a hand over their heart—and exactly what the design of the U.S. flag would be (random trivia: as Alaska and Hawaii had not yet become a part of the union, the official number of stars signed into law were 48. This changed on July 4, 1960, when the 50 star version was signed into law.) Though the flag is officially not allowed to touch the ground, there is no mention of what to do with it once it is in our hands. This is where the tradition, the military, and personal conviction step in. The flag folding ceremony has an optional script that can go with it. Depending on the focus, each fold in the ceremony has a religious or patriotic meaning, extolling virtues and proclaiming our country’s heritage as one rooted in deep-seated beliefs.

Flag folding is most representative of the values and passions held dear by those involved. Certainly, the rigidity of its performance demonstrates a kind of inner plum line of patriotism expressed in the few minutes it takes to make the folds. The dedication with which this ceremony is followed suggests that each movement or fold has been prescribed by law. In fact, though the Flag Conference and Flag Code have provided thorough instruction on the myriad details of the use and treatment of our patriotic banner, how to fold the U.S. flag is not addressed. The folding ritual we see performed with such honor and solemnity appears to be one born in the heart of its citizens.

Kathleen Krueger

Kathleen is a full-time freelance writer and owner of Crafter of Words LLC. She specializes in providing high-quality blogs, website copy and email campaigns for businesses. She frequently writes on topics of interest to home owners such as remodeling, storage and moving.

Latest posts by Kathleen Krueger (see all)