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The U.S. National Flag: A Standard of Design

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July 4th fireworks, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Carol Highsmith (2008)

Many of us associate July 4th, Independence Day, with barbecues, picnics and fireworks. But it is also the day when we proudly display the National Flag of the United States. We honor this day by flying Old Glory’s stars and stripes, draping our buildings with American Flag bunting, and outfitting our celebrations in red, white and blue.

If you are looking for flag etiquette, check out the Law Library blog post Flag Day and the Flag Code, but did you know that there are standards and a Federal specification that provide exact requirements for the U. S. National Flag’s design, construction, and packaging?

The Federal specification DDD-F-416F provides the standards and technical guidance for the U.S. National flag’s design and construction- from its proportions to the proper fabrics and thread.  Standards also specify three particular colors: Old Glory Red, White and Old Glory Blue, which can be found in The Standard Color Reference of America .

Flag shop, Navy Yard (1917)

In fact, there is a whole host of standards that insure that Old Glory’s construction is consistent, of the finest quality and made to last – from using metallic grommets that follow the National Aerospace Standard (NASM) to standards for the textiles, fibers, stitches, and seams approved by the American Standard for Testing Material (ASTM) and other organizations. There is even a standard for the flag pole developed by the National Association of Architectural Metal Manufacturers-Guide Specifications for Design of Metal Flagpoles Manual (ANSI/NASM FP 100197)!

According to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), “Our national standard has undergone more design transitions than any other flag in the world.” So what is a standard? As defined by ISO/IEC Guide 2:2004 a standard is

 a document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of  the optimum degree of order in a given context.

Basically, a standard is a voluntary practice of conformity that can be adopted in a variety of cases such as those involving commerce, manufacturing, and most importantly health and safety issues.

A standard ensures that norms and guidelines for products, services, and systems are practiced.  Standards also help protect the safety of a community by providing rules and regulations such as the National Fire Protection Association’s Uniform Fire Code HandbookAnd standards can also be adopted as mandatory codes for local, state, or federal governments (e.g. Building Codes). To learn more about the standards making process in the United States check out ANSI’s Overview of the U.S. Standardization System.

Image from DDD-F-416F- Federal Specification Flag, National, United States of America and Flag Union Jack (31 March 2005)

Some of the earliest standards can be traced to 7000 B.C.E when the Egyptians adopted a set practice related to the use of weights and measures.  Today, we often take standards for granted, not even knowing that they exist, but they are always behind the scenes in our daily lives.  Have you ever wondered why all of the U.S. plugs for electrical appliances fit into the electrical outlets of U.S. homes? The answer can be found in a standard. Standards make things convenient and allow devices to work together. Although the item might be considered antiquated by today’s consumer, the introduction of the Compact Disc (CD) is a great example of the success of a standard – manufacturers agreed to make the CD able to run on all CD players. I wish it could be that easy for e-books and their related devices- just think of the multiple types of players and types of files that are not compatible. Though there are organizations such as National Information Standards Organization (NISO) discussing them, e-book issues and possible standards are a complicated matter.

The Library of Congress, with over 500,000 standards, houses one of the largest standards collections in the country. Standards and specifications are located in the Technical Reports and Standards Unit. There are approximately 400 individual organizations or collective associations represented with the majority of the collection focusing on the main standards disseminating organizations, along with selections from foreign standards. It is important to note that the Library cannot make copies of standards because of copyright restrictions, but these standards are available for viewing onsite, and relevant portions can be reproduced by the user under the fair use provision.

During this holiday week you may find yourself gazing at the U.S. National Flag with a sense of pride and honor. I hope you will also think about all of the hard work  and standards that went into making Old Glory look her best.  I think Mary Pickersgill would be proud. Who is Mary Pickersgill? Well, she is the flag maker and seamstress who, in 1813, with the help of her family and servants, hand-sewn the flag that would inspire Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner in 1814. Today, this iconic flag is known as the Star-Spangled Banner flag.

Mrs. Mary Scott Pickersgill

If the history of the U.S. National flag, state flags or study of flags (also called vexillology) intrigues you… here is a selection of books you might find of interest:

The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict by Howard Michael Madaus and Whitney Smith (Santa Cruz, Ca, VZ Publications,  c2006)

The Flag Book of the United States by Whitney Smith (New York , Morrow, c1975)

Flag: An American Biography by Marc Leepson (New York, Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin’s Press, 2005)

Flags Through the Ages and Across the World by Whitney Smith (New York , McGraw-Hill, 1975)

 Old Glory: Unfurling History by Karal Ann Marling (Kent, Bunker Hill Pub. in association with the Library of Congress, 2004). The author spoke at the Library with picture editor Vincent Virga about her book. You can view the webcast here.


Comments (6)

  1. Nice to know,

  2. Old Glory is Not the official name of the US Flag, an ensign taken, arguably, from the East India Company Flag worn on vessels beyond the Americas (some postulated kept in store above caskets on either the Beaver, Eleanor or Dartmouth when moored at Boston for Tea Party). Old Glory is the term applied to the flag of Captain Driver. That those associated with LC could make such a blunder is unfortunate

    • @Jack. Thank you for your comment. You bring up an important distinction and one that should be discussed so folks can learn more about the rich history of the U.S. National Flag. It was not our intention to insinuate that ‘Old Glory’ is the official name of the National Flag of the U.S. We simply used it as a familiar term. Your mention of Captain Driver calling his flag ‘Old Glory’ is spot-on (for those looking for more about this see E.L.Scott’s book How the Flag Became Old Glory, 1915). This informal name seems to have stuck, as one can see from the use of the term Old Glory to represent the U.S. National Flag in sheet music, books, poems, essays, etc. There is no denying that through time, the term ‘Old Glory’ has etched its way into our vocabulary as another name for the U.S. National flag, similar to the use of the term ‘Stars and Stripes.’ Even the Oxford English Dictionary has recognized this term- it defines ‘Old Glory’ as “an informal name for the US national flag.”

  3. I really enjoy the piece. Very insightful.

  4. it is a new information for me)

  5. Is there a statement in any document that suggest or orders that when a U.S. Flag is displayed with other flags the they should all be the same size or none should be larger then the U.S. Flag. My reference is three flags displayed on separate poles with the U.S. Flag being smaller just by inches. I have not found any reference which says this is not proper. Thank You. H.Weller

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