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American Flag Etiquette: 12 Mistakes You Didn’t Realize You Were Making

We’ve checked with some patriotic organizations about how best to display Old Glory based on the U.S. Flag Code. These are not laws—no one’s going to jail for disregarding them. But should you wish to fly the Colors, here are a few tips.

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Hispanic woman waving American flag on roof of white SUVJacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

The United States’ flag has served as a symbol of pride and freedom in America since its adoption in 1777. It’s such an iconic symbol (just look at all the American flag pictures out there) that it even has its own etiquette code. Yep, there are certain things that, technically, you can’t do with the American flag. You may know American history and can quote a few patriotic quotes, but do you know what you technically can (and can’t) do with the flag? Here are some mistakes you didn’t realize you were making with the American flag—and what the official etiquette rules say to do instead. After you read this, take this American flag quiz to test your knowledge of the stars and stripes.
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Two friends drape themselves in an American flag outsideFatCamera/Getty Images

You carry the flag horizontally during a parade

It’s tempting to mimic the pregame ceremonies at football games and carry the giant flags horizontally. But the flag etiquette code is pretty clear on this. The flag should be held “always aloft and free.”

RELATED: 20 Reasons the American Flag Is Even Cooler Than You Thought

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USA, Massachusetts, DetailWalter Bibikow/Getty Images

You wear the flag as a shirt or swimsuit

The flag’s a flag, it’s not clothing. The etiquette code states that the flag should never be used as apparel, bedding, or drapery. However, there is an important apparel rule to note. You know those Old Navy T-Shirts? puts that in the same category with wearing the flag, whereas the American Legion says the design is not the actual flag, only a “representation,” and, therefore, they have no problem with that.

RELATED: What Is Flag Day and Why Do We Celebrate It?

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4th of July themed party decorations.Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

You buy American Flag napkins for your Fourth of July Picnic

It’s Independence Day and you’re celebrating with a big picnic complete with hamburgers, hot dogs, and American flag napkins. You might consider some other sort of napkin. As with athletic uniforms, the code is very particular when it comes to wiping mustard off your mouth with the flag: “[The flag] should not be … printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dies At 87Samuel Corum/Getty Images

You fly the flag at half-staff for a fallen friend

A soldier or veteran you know has died. You’d like to honor them by flying the flag at half-staff. But figure out another way to honor your friend. According to the flag etiquette code, only the president or your state governor can order the U.S. flag lowered to half-staff.

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Grungy American FlagKlubovy/Getty Images

You burn a dirtied flag

Your flag has touched the ground and you’ve been told it should now be destroyed. Don’t. While you should avoid letting the flag touch the ground, there’s no need to destroy it. According to the American Legion, the flag can be washed or dry-cleaned—just pay attention to the material before you decide to wash.

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Patriotic Trashandipantz/Getty Images

You throw away an American flag

If you’re thinking about tossing a tattered American flag in the trash, think again. One of the biggest points to remember about U.S. flag etiquette is that the flag should never be thrown in the garbage. The flag code states that “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.” The American Legion, however, points out that some American flags may be made from materials that, when burned, can create hazardous gases. It’s even illegal in some states to burn materials like nylon. In that case, the American Legion says flags made from synthetics may be buried instead of burned.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Miami MarlinsMark Brown/Getty Images

You sew an American flag patch onto your sports uniform

There’s nothing more American than baseball. And to prove it, you’ve sewn an American flag patch onto your baseball uniform. Per U.S. flag etiquette, consider removing it. The flag code actually references this: “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.”

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Weathered U S Flag Close-upYinYang/Getty Images

You replace the stars with another image

For the same reason as the previous slide, don’t replace the stars with anything else: an image of a favorite candidate, patriotic words, etc.

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United States Flag in Rain Stormddea/Getty Images

You’ve left your flag flying, even in a rainstorm

Unless you have an all-weather flag, American flag etiquette states it should never be displayed in inclement weather lest it gets ruined.

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US Flag in the Wind at NightRGO_sportsman/Getty Images

You fly the flag at night without proper lighting

If you have an American flag flying in your yard, you may keep it up 24/7. Technically, though, flying the flag after sunset and before sunrise without proper lighting violates the flag code. The code states, “It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.” If you’re flying the flag in your yard, though, it’s understandable if you don’t have professional lighting. Instead, you can put garden lights or other ambient lighting fixtures near the flag so people passing by can properly see Old Glory.

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The Today Show Gallery of OlympiansScott Halleran/Getty Images

You ask a celebrity to sign your flag

It may be tempting to ask a governor, mayor, or even a famous actor to autograph your flag. But this is a big no-no in flag etiquette. The flag code stipulates: “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”

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Low Angle View Of Flags Against Clear Blue SkyDaniel Costales/EyeEm/Getty Images

You display another flag and the American flag on the same staff

It’s OK to fly different national flags in addition to, or instead of, the American flag. According to the flag code, however, the American flag must fly from a separate staff. The code also references this: “No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America.” Think you could match U.S. states with their flag? This state flag quiz will tell you.


Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.