Flying at Half-Staff: The History and Significance

May 16, 2019 2 min read

There are certain days of the year when the American flag is flown at half-staff. This is an important part of flag etiquette and most flag enthusiasts are aware of the importance of getting it right. The simplest way to remember the significance of flying the US flag at half-staff is in the event of remembrance or when the entire nation is mourning.

Here’s a refresher course on the history and protocol for flying half-staff:

Defining Half-Staff Position

Half-staff is the position of a flag when it’s halfway between the bottom and the top of the staff or flagpole. The term half-mast means the same thing but it’s usually used in nautical terms for flags on ships.

It can be difficult to know the exact measurement of half-staff. A good way to remember it is that it should at least be the width of your flag. The implication here is that there’s something missing above the flag, which scholars refer to as the “invisible flag of death.”

Symbolic Importance

The symbolic meaning behind flying half-staff is to signify grief or mourning. The half-staff position is used following deaths of certain high-level government officials, on various holidays, and in times of national distress.

The flag code and etiquette include specific instruction for the time frame for which it should be flown and how to position the flag. The periods of mourning can only be declared through a presidential proclamation.

History of Flying Half-Staff

The oldest reference to flying half-staff can be found around the early 1600s, when the captain of Heart’s Ease, a British ship, died en route to Canada. On its return to London, the ship’s crew had lowered the flag to honor their departed captain. The British started the tradition of flying half-mast at exactly one flag’s width lower on days of mourning to make room for an invisible flag on top that represented their loss.

Flying the Flag at Half-Staff: When Should You Do It?

The proper procedure of flying half-staff is to first hoist the flag briskly to the top. Then lower the flag down slowly to the width of at least one flag. On Memorial Day, the American flag is flown at half-staff from sunrise to noon. This is done to honor the sacrifices of the fallen American soldiers over the years. Other common half-staff days include:

  • Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15)
  • Armed Forces Day
  • Patriot Day (September 11)
  • National Firefighters Memorial Day (October)
  • Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7)
  • Day of Remembrance for President Lincoln (April 15)

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