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Frequently Asked Questions - Part 3

The Flags Of The World FAQ

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The Flags of the World FAQ - Part 3
(American English language version)
last updated 24 April 1998
written and compiled by Steve Kramer []

The following document is an attempt to answer the most common questions a layman might have about the field of vexillology, the academic study of flags. There's no attempt to provide a scrupulously complete answer to every question one might have, but instead give the reader a simple answer to a simple question, as well as provide some background information from which to research further. As such, reading the entire document through should provide an introduction to the field.

The source for all of this information is the Flags of the World Internet mailing list, an ongoing discussion by an international group of vexillologists and vexillophiles using the medium of the Internet. Some members gained the information through books or similar sources; others learned through direct observation or their own research. As such, it is hard to pin exact bibliographical sources on many of the answers. A polite request for sources to the List, at, will usually get you something more definitive for use in serious research.

The first and second section deal with the terminology and abbreviations used in the discussion of vexillology; thus, it can be referred to at any time you find it hard to understand a particular bit of jargon. The third section deals with a special topic: "families" of flags, created by one flag designs influence on another. If your question is of the variety, "Why are these two flags so much alike?", this section may provide your answer. The final section answers specific questions about flags, flag protocol, and vexillology, with sub-sections that deal in depth with the flags that draw the most questions: the Stars & Stripes of the U.S., and the Union Jack of the United Kingdom.

B. Questions about the Flag of the United States

Who designed the U.S. flag?

A cherished U.S. legend states that a Philadelphia seamstress named Betsy Ross designed the first "Continental Colors" (the first U.S. flag with a union of stars rather than a design containing the pre-1801 Union Jack). However, the designer was more than likely Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later member of the House of Representatives. He probably designed the flag in late 1776 or early 1777 while serving on the Continental Navy Board. There was some dispute as to whether he was the only designer, but the journals of the contemporary Congress list his name and no other.

The designer of the current 50-star flag is Robert G. Heft, mayor of the town of Napoleon, Ohio. Mr. Heft designed the flag while in high school and submitted the design to Congress, where it was approved in 1959.

Which star or stripe on the U.S. flag stands for my state?

Congress has stated that no star or stripe stands for a specific state -- just that there should be 13 stripes, and as many stars as there are states.

What is the penalty for burning the U.S. flag?

The U.S. Flag Code (title 4, United States Code, sections 5 to 10) does not have the force of law, therefore there are no penalties other than those which would be imposed for burning a piece of cloth in a public place. Further, the Supreme Court declared the statutes containing criminal penalties for U.S. flag desecration un-Constitutional in 1989 and 1990. However, there has been discussion in recent times of an Amendment to the Constitution specifically prohibiting this practice. The Flag Code does state that burning is the preferred method of disposal for a dishonored flag (one too tattered or soiled to be displayed), so even if such an Amendment were to be passed, it is likely that there would still be no penalty in such a case.

What are the official colours of the US flag?

The official specification for federal procurements of US flags is set by the General Services Administration. It is DDD-F-416E, and it sets the color specifications by reference to the Standard Color Card of America. This is a color system designed for textile use-- appropriate, since flags are made of cloth! The specifications are:

red= Cable No. 70180 (Old Glory red)
white= Cable No. 70001 (White)
blue= Cable No. 70075 (Old Glory blue)
Various sources give different Pantone equivalencies for these colors. The most plausibly authoritative are those provided on miscellaneous American Embassy websites, including American Embassy London. It gives the red as PMS 193 and the blue as PMS 282. On the other hand, Texas state law says the Texas state flag has the same colors as the US flag, and that they are red PMS193 and blue PMS281. It should be noted that flags produced other than for the executive branch of the government are not bound by any of this.
Joe McMillan, 20 September 2001

Why is the U.S. flag the only one not dipped at the Olympics?

Again, from the U.S. Flag Code: "No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor."

Please see our page about Olympic flag questions for more on this topic.

Where is the U.S. flag flown 24 hours a day by law?

Please see our page on this topic in the US section.

Where is the US flag never flown at half-mast?
We have been asked this question many times. So far we have only come up with two possible places:

  • At the UN headquarters, New York: when the UN flag is flown at half-mast at UN HQ or elsewhere, no national flags are displayed at all. Joe McMillan, 9 Febraury 2001
  • On the Moon - no one has been there to lower it!

There appears to be an urban legend that the flag is never flown at half-mast at the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Betsy Ross's home, and on the Moon.  We have confirmed that this is an untrue legend (except for the Moon!)

The White House flies at half mast the same times as the rest of the federal government.
Joe McMillan, 10 February 2001

Concerning the Arlington Cemetery, apart from being lowered for the usual national mourning, it flies at half mast for each funeral conducted, as provided by Army regulations on conduct of funerals. In practice, that means its at half mast (staff) from about 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. every day, Monday through Friday, because of the number of burials that are conducted there. I see this flag virtually every day on the way to work and going to and from meetings around the Washington area.
Joe McMillan, 14 February 2001

There is a separate flagpole behind (southwest of) the amphitheater at the Tomb of the Unknowns. But the flag on it is flown at halfmast only while funerals are being conducted in the cemetery (i.e., most of the day on weekdays). At other times, such as weekends and holidays, it is flown full up.
Joe McMillan, 16 April 2001

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at the Arlington Cemetery, and there is only one flagpole.
Joe McMillan, 14 February 2001

Photos of the USS Arizona Battleship Memorial show the flag full up except on Pearl Harbor Day, Memorial Day, etc.
Joe McMillan, 14 February 2001

Regarding the US Flag at Half-Staff at both the Betsy Ross House and The Alamo I can report that they both half staff their flags. I called both locations to confirm this.
Jim Ferrigan, 25 June 2002

Is there anywhere that the US flag is always flown at half-mast?
To my knowledge, there is nowhere in the United States where the flag is constantly flown at half-mast. Even on Memorial Day, as I recall from my old boy scout days it is considered correct to raise the flag to full mast at noon (but I'm not 100 percent sure about that).
Lane Startin, 14 February 2001

Concerning memorial sites, see the question "Where is the flag never flown at half-mast?"

Does a fringe or a spearhead finial (flagstaff ornament) on the U.S. flag indicate that the country or justice system is under martial law or a "one-world" government?

Some Americans with a particular ideological slant cite an impressive list of federal laws, executive orders, and U.S. Army regulations having to do with the U.S. flag, and theorize that if these are not followed exactly, it is an indicator that the institution displaying the flag is directly or indirectly part of an anti-U.S. movement or conspiracy, or that martial law has been secretly imposed. This is, of course, not the case.

The general law binding concerning the U.S. flag is in title 4, sections 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 of United States Code. Section 1 states, "The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field." Section 2 states, "On the admission of a new State into the Union one star shall be added to the union of the flag; and such addition shall take effect on the fourth day of July then succeeding such admission." Sections 5 to 10 contain what is known as the Flag Code. Fringes, cords and tassels, and other ornaments are not mentioned in the Flag Code, and they be added without changing the flag into something other than a U.S. flag.

Presidential Executive Order 10834 of August 21, 1959, sections 1 to 3, gives the specific design for the U.S. flag, including proportions (10:19), size of the stars, arrangement of the stars, and so on. In the Flag Code, Congress recognizes the specific design by stating, "The flag of the United States for the purpose of this chapter shall be defined according to sections 1 and 2 of this title [4 of the United States Code] and Executive Order 10834 issued pursuant thereto." Sections 21 to 25 (note: there are no sections 4 to 20) of Executive Order 10834 allow executive agencies, including the military, to purchase and use flags that differ in dimension from the specific design established in sections 1 to 3. Neither Congress nor the President have prohibited flag manufacturers from making and selling U.S. flags that differ from the specific design, and in fact few U.S. flags made and sold in the U.S. follow the specific design.

U.S. Army Regulations 260-10 and 840-10 do, in fact, detail a great many specifications about the display of the flag, such as when fringes are to be used, what finial should be used at a recruiting station or a court-martial, and so on. U.S. Army Regulations go into great deal of detail on just about every subject imaginable. This does not mean that they are binding on civilians or the civilian courts, nor does it mean that if a civilian institution follows one of these regulations that it suddenly becomes a military institution.

Is the Flag of Texas the only state flag permitted to fly at the same height as the U.S. flag?

There is no prohibition in the U.S. Flag Code against any state -- nor any city, county, or government -- raising its flag to the same height as the U.S. flag. The prohibitions are that no flag should fly *above* the U.S. flag and that in the United States, the U.S. flag should have the position of honor, usually on the viewer's left. It is believed that under strict interpretation of Texas law, the flag of Texas has the place of honor next to the U.S. flag, which means it should be raised ahead of other nations' flags. This practice is not fully accepted in international etiquette, but it is also not a question of height.

Is it true that in times of war, the U.S. (or the U.S. Armed Forces) flies a special version of the Flag with the canton resting on a red stripe (the "war stripe")?

No. This theory was originally advanced by the Mastai family, who cited the original "Star-Spangled Banner" which flew over Fort McHenry as an example. A few cavalry flags of the 19th Century were also made in this fashion. In all cases, they appear to have been made as variants, and not as the result of an official policy.

What is in the "ball cap" on top of a flagpole flying the U.S. flag?

Nothing. There is a persistent rumor left over from the Cold War that the "ball"-type finials atop poles flying U.S. flags contain a razor or similar instrument, so that the U.S. flag may be destroyed in the event of a successful enemy attack to prevent its capture by the enemy. No evidence for this has ever been found. It's just a legend.

C. Questions about the Flag of the United Kingdom

What is the national flag of the U.K.?

There is no official national flag on land for the United Kingdom. The government has stated that there is no objection to subjects using the Union Jack on land, so it has become the de facto national flag. At sea, there are three official national flags at sea, the white, red and blue ensigns. The Union Jack is reserved at sea for specific, military uses; civilian ships should fly the Red Ensign, a red flag with the Union Jack in the canton.

What crosses make up the Union Jack?

The Union Jack is made up of the Crosses of St. George (representing England), St. Andrew (Scotland), and St. Patrick (Northern Ireland). St. George's and St. Andrew's were ordered amalgamated by James I for use by His Majesty's subjects at sea in 1606, though the exact design was never fixed. St. Patrick's, a red saltire on white, was added and the design was finally standardized in 1801. Wales is a Principality and is therefore not represented on the flag.

What is the proper name of the "Union Jack"?

If it is flying as a jack from a ship of the Royal Navy, it is properly termed the "Union Jack". In all uses *on land*, however, it is properly called the "Union Flag". Since the general public calls it "Union Jack" no matter where it is, that is how it will be termed in this FAQ list.

Why is the red cross inside the white one on the Union Jack off-centered? Is it possible to fly a Union Jack upside-down?

A brief explanation: the "X" portion of the Union Jack is a combination of the Cross of St. Patrick (the red one) and the Cross of St. Andrew (the white one), plus a white fimbriation added on either side. St. Andrew's is on the right in every quarter (as you turn the flag clockwise) due to a rule of heraldry giving Scotland a position of precedence (on the right) over Northern Ireland as the more senior member of the United Kingdom. Thus, the flag is not symmetrical, and it is possible to hoist upside-down. British Scout troops are taught to look at the first quarter of the flag (in the upper hoist) and think "White on right!" in order to make sure it's raised correctly.

Why didn't Buckingham Palace fly the Union Jack until recently?

The Palace is the Queen's personal residence and as such she may fly any flags she wishes. Up until now, the Palace has flown only the Royal Standard, and only then when the Queen is in residence. It was decided that the Palace (and the Queen's other residences, except for Windsor Castle, which is technically a British fort and thus flew the Union Jack already) would fly the Union Jack in order to express a greater measure of solidarity with the people of Britain.

Why wasn't the Queen's Standard lowered to half-mast when Diana, Princess of Wales, died?

The Queen's (or King's) Standard is never lowered to half-staff, even upon the death of the Queen, so long as there remains someone to succeed to the throne. To do so would signify the end of the Monarchy. To express the grief of the Royal Family, Buckingham Palace hoisted the Union Jack at half-staff (though a "junior official" did commit a breach of protocol by briefly lowering the Standard to half-staff instead).

I've just seen a flag with the Union Jack in one corner. What was it?

The U.K. has three ensigns with roughly the same design. The Red Ensign was mentioned above. The Blue Ensign is the same design with a blue field, and the White Ensign is white with a red St. George's Cross and a Union Jack in the canton. Undefaced, the Red Ensign serves as the civil ensign, the Blue is the state ensign (but may be worn by civilian ships which meet certain criteria), and the White is the war ensign. Frequently, these flags are seen with some sort of badge in the fly, and these are so numerous as to be impossible to list here. Blue Ensigns are seen defaced most often; they are used for governmental departments, official maritime organizations, and colonial or former colonial administrations. The flags of Australia and New Zealand are defaced Blue Ensigns.

D. Questions about other flags

Do the points on the maple leaf of Canada's flag signify anything?

There's been some speculation that the eleven points on the maple leaf on the flag of Canada, nine above and two below, stood in some way for the number of provinces and territories in Canada. This is not the case as Canada has *ten* provinces and three territories, and even when the flag was adopted in 1965, had ten provinces and two territories. Others have speculated the 11 points represent 10 provinces and one country, but again, this is only rumour. The points on the maple leaf are simply the points on a idealised maple leaf.

Do the Canadian $5 and $10 bills show the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa flying the Stars and Stripes?

No, that's the Canadian Red Ensign, the flag of Canada before 1965.

What does the Arabic writing say on the flags of Sa'udi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and others?

Calligraphy is an important art form in many Islamic countries, and some of them literally spell out their faith in Islam on their flag. Sa'udi Arabia and Afghanistan both bear the shahada, the affirmation of the Muslim faith: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is His prophet." Another common phrase is Allah akbar, or "Allah is great," which is written in between the stars of the Iraqi flag, and in between the stripes on the Iranian flag 22 times, to commemorate the 22nd day of the month when the Islamic Revolution took place.

What is the correct shade of blue on the flag of Sweden? of the Bahamas?

Depictions of the Swedish flag show a huge degree of variation in the shade of blue used. According to information from the Swedish government, the correct shade is "light medium blue" (B-, in the Flag Information Code, is closest), slightly darker than the blue used in the United Nations flag. Similarly, the Bahamanian flag is typically incorrectly shown with basic blue stripes. The stripes should be blue-green (B- is again probably closest, but the color is unique), as the designer meant for them to match the exact color of the coastal waters around the islands.

Who developed the Rainbow Flag, and why are there only six stripes?

The Rainbow Flag was designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco artist, in response to a local activist's call for a symbol for the homosexual community. The design may have been influenced by flags with multicolored stripes used by various left-wing causes and organizations in the San Francisco area in the 1960s. The Rainbow Flag originally had eight stripes (from top to bottom: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for serenity with nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit). Handmade versions of this flag were flown in the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade. After the November 1978 assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and the subsequent lenient sentence given to their killer, former Supervisor Dan White, the Rainbow Flag began to be used in San Francisco as a general symbol of the gay community. San Francisco-based Paramount Flag Co. began selling seven-striped (top to bottom: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) flags from its Polk Street retail store, which was located in a large gay neighborhood. These flags were surplus stock which had originally been made for the Rainbow Girls, a Masonic organization for young women. When Baker approached Paramount to make flags for the 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade, Paramount informed Baker that fabric for hot pink was not available for mass production, and Baker dropped the hot pink stripe. Baker also asked Paramount to make vertical banners that would be split and displayed from the angular double bars of the old-style lamp posts on Market Street. Baker and Paramount's vice president Ken Hughes agreed to drop the hot pink and turquoise stripes and replace the indigo stripe with royal blue--resulting in three stripes on one side of the lamp post and three on the other. Eventually, the Rainbow Flag evolved into a standard six-stripe form (from top to bottom: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet).

Wasn't there a European Union flag with 15 stars? Why does the EU flag have only twelve stars when the Council of Europe, whose flag was adopted by the EU, began with 15 members in 1953?

The flag of the Council of Europe, which was indeed later adopted by the EU, the European Movement, and other groups as a sign of pan-Europeanism, has always had 12 stars. The number of stars does not change, no matter how many member nations join. A British pro-European group once published a pamphlet explaining that the original proposal before the Council of Europe had 15 stars, one for each member. Germany objected, however, as one of the stars would then have represented the Saarland, a separate member of the Council but a region over which Germany claimed sovereignty. This left 14 stars, a number to which France objected precisely because it implied German sovereignty over the Saarland. The Council rejected 13 stars for reasons of superstition, and eventually settled on twelve.

E. Identification of Flags Based on Description

We receive questions on many flags based on their description. If your question roughly resembles "What flag is that?", you may wish to browse through the following descriptions of some often asked-about flags. See the section on Terminology if you are confused by some of the verbal descriptions.

Red, with a white stripe from upper hoist to lower fly. Usually square.

This is the "diver down" flag, flown from a ship to indicate that there is a diver below. Also flown from dive shops and by diving enthusiasts.

British Union Jack in the canton; eight red, white, and blue stripes in the fly.

This is the state flag of Hawaii (United States). It was designed to appeal to the British and Americans, the two imperial powers in the region at the time.

Continued on faq4.html