The Significance and History of Flying at Half-Staff

The Significance and History of Flying at Half-Staff

Posted by Hayley Adams on Sep 15th 2022

The term "half-staff" refers to the position of a flag when it is halfway between the top and bottom of the staff. 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 is a quick look at the history behind flying the flag at half-staff and some important protocols to note!

The Half-Staff Position

Although the flag does not have to be exactly in the middle of the staff or flagpole, it should however, be lowered to at least the width of your flag. This is to imply that something is missing above the flag. Many scholars refer to this space as the "invisible flag of death".

Many people have also heard the term, half-mast, and oftentimes use the two terms interchangeably. The two terms do mean the same thing, however, half-mast is typically used in nautical terms for flags on ships.

Symbolic Significance

Flying a flag at half-staff or half-mast is a sign for grief and mourning. It is flown following the death of certain government officials, in times of national distress, on various holidays that signify remembrance, and at any other time it is instructed by the president or government. There are specific instructions in the Flag Code for lowering the flag and the time frame it should be flown.

History of Flying Half-Staff

In the early days of our country, no regulations existed for flying the flag at half-staff and, as a result, there were many conflicting policies. But on March 1, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower issued a proclamation on the proper times.

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.

When & How Long You Do It

The flag should fly at half-staff for 30 days at all federal buildings, grounds, and naval vessels throughout the United States and its territories and possessions after the death of the president or a former president.

It is to fly 10 days at half-staff after the death of the vice president, the chief justice or a retired chief justice, or the speaker of the House of Representatives. For other higher up government officials, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff from the day of death until the official burial or funeral. The same protocol should be followed upon the death of the governor of a state.

The president may order the flag to be flown at half-staff to mark the death of other officials, former officials, or foreign dignitaries. In addition to these occasions, the president may order half-staff display of the flag after other tragic events.

Here are some important holiday's to keep in mind when it comes to flying your flag at half-staff.

Half Days:
  • Memorial Day (Last Monday in May)
Full Days:
  • National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (Dec. 7)
  • Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15)
  • Patriot Day (Sept. 11)
  • First Sunday of Fire Prevention Week (usually first Sunday in October)

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