Flag etiquette: What to do with older American Flags

by David M. Johnson

Old Glory, the Flag, the Stars and Stripes, are monikers or other names for the flag of the United States. As this nation has observed, or will soon observe, at least one recent or upcoming holiday or designated day in recent months - Memorial Day in May, Flag Day in June and Independence Day in July - much attention is drawn to that symbol of this nation.

History tells the tale that this nation’s flag began its storied history during the 1775-1776 time period.  Betsy Ross is historically noted to have been given the responsibility to sew a flag that would best represent her emerging country from the colonial grip of England.

The American flag evolved with numerous designs until today it has the familiar 50 stars and 13 stripes. Over the decades and centuries, this flag is now recognized as not only the flag of a country but has become a symbol, a beacon to others outside the borders of the United States. To a large segment of the population of this country, the American flag has become more than a piece of cloth, it is a flag that holds special meaning, a nexus that ties the past to the present.

Over the years there has been established a flag etiquette. Because of the reverence and importance that the American flag holds to many Americans, the display of the flag has certain rules that should be observed when displaying the flag. The following information was provided by Allamakee County Veterans Services:

• When hanging with stripes in a vertical or horizontal position against the wall, the stars should be in the uppermost left-hand corner.
• When the flag is carried with other flags in a parade, it should always claim the place of honor - at the right.
• The flag should never be used as a table cloth; or should have nothing rest upon it, and it should never touch the ground, floor, or trail in water.
• The flag should never be placed below seats or platforms, or be twisted in any fancy shape for decoration. When used on a speaker’s platform, it is to be displayed flat and above and behind the speaker. If flown on a staff, it should be to the right of the speaker. It should never be used to cover the speaker’s desk or to drape over the front of the platform.
• The flag should never be draped over the hood, top, sides or back of a vehicle, or railroad train or boat. When the flag is displayed on a motorcar, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.
• When the flags of two or more nations are displayed, they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height, should be approximately equal size, and international usage forbids the display of the flags one above that of another nation during peacetime. The display of the flag should never have the union down, except as a signal of distress.
• The flag of the United States should be at the center and the highest point of the group of flags when a number of flags of states or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.
• The flag should never have placed upon it or any part of it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure design, picture, or drawing of any nature. When displayed 24 hours a day, it should be properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.

Just as there are rules for the display of the flag, there are also rules for disposing a used, worn flag. According to the U.S. Flag Code, “The flag when it is in such condition that is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” This Code was established in 1923, when a National Flag Conference met in Washington.

The American Legion passed a resolution about flag retirement ceremonies in 1937. During an American Legion ceremony, participants stand aligned in two parallel rows about 20 feet apart, facing each other.  A small fire burns beyond the rows of members, the fire used for discarded flags.

The Boy Scouts organization rules for disposal of the American flag is similar to the American Legion protocol for flag retirement. Former Scoutmaster John Troendle of Waukon described the flag as a living entity, and notes that it should be treated that way. The Scouts disperse of the flag in a dignified manner with the flag or flags burned in a ceremony. Since the flag grommets are metal and cannot simply be thrown in the trash, they are also treated in a dignified manner. The grommets are buried in an unmarked grave in the Waukon City Park.

Troendle added that the Scouts observe the etiquette established by the Flag Code and added, “When the flag has an emblem, words or any other things added onto the flag, it is no longer a flag but is considered flag art.”

As his Eagle Scout project in 2016, former Waukon Boy Scout Tyler O’Neill created a couple of drop boxes to leave old, tattered flags in, one at the Allamakee County Courthouse and the other in the Waukon City Park. Those flags are then properly disposed of by the Waukon Boy Scout Troop.

Heather Homewood of the Allamakee County Veteran Services office in Waukon mentioned the Boy Scout drop box on the second floor of the courthouse, noting “… it is a beautiful box with an engraved and painted eagle on the top.”  She volunteered further information by reminding the public the new Allamakee County Veterans Museum also has a drop box. Her office sells flags for the Waukon American Legion Post and her office will also take any flags that the owners feel should be disposed of properly.

Homewood added, “I often drive through town and see many tattered flags and wonder if people do not notice that their flag is tattered or torn, and why those tattered flags are just not taken down all together. This is something I wish that people did look at a little more often.”

Veteran Don Peters of Lansing agrees with Homewood’s statement, “American flags should be retired if they are faded or tattered beyond repair, or if they are too dirty to be cleaned. Flags should not be just thrown in the trash.”

The Lansing VFW has a flag disposal container in front of the VFW building on South Front Street for the public to deposit their discarded flags. The Lansing VFW and American Legion also have a retirement procedure normally in the spring and fall with a special retirement ceremony, with the Boy Scouts assisting with the burning of the hundreds of flags these organizations receive. The public is encouraged to use this disposal method.

New Albin area residents are invited to use the Lansing VFW drop box for any tattered flags they may have. Harpers Ferry American Legion also has a wooden box outside of the Legion Hall in Harpers Ferry to receive flags from the public that are to be disposed of properly, and Waterville area residents are invited to use that box or any available in Waukon or other locations as well.

At the local level throughout Allamakee County, this nation’s flag appears to be most often shown the proper respect, whether being flown in public or disposed of when that flag’s meaning has outlived its respectful condition. When “Old Glory” has lost its luster, then there exists avenues to respectfully dispose of it. It is up to members of the public to be mindful of the condition of any American flag that they may fly, and to take advantage of those avenues to respectfully dispose of it when the time comes.