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Fringe on Flags (U.S.)

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[U.S. fringed flag] image by Rick Wyatt, 26 March 1998


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Recently, I have received several inquiries privately regarding the symbolism of the fringe displayed on indoor U.S. Flags, especially in courtrooms. I received the following data sheet from the Flag Research Center regarding this question and I quote it here in its entirety:

FRINGE ON THE UNITED STATES FLAG?

For many years rumors have been spread through the United States concerning the origin and meaning of the gold fringe which frequently decorates the Stars and Stripes. It has been claimed that such fringe is without proper authorization; that it is symbolic of the end of the gold standard as the basis for United States currency; or that it indicates the substitution of admiralty courts and martial law for common law courts and procedures, as part of a conspiracy supposedly instigated by Communists, Jews, Masons, liberals, feminists, homosexuals, or other "un-American" groups.

The Flag Research Center has not conducted a thorough investigation of all the claims being made about fringe, many of which are spread by radio talk programs, cassette tapes, lectures and other non-written forms. Nevertheless its unique resources allow the Center to state the following with certainty:
  • Available evidence seems to suggest that the claims made about fringe on the United States flag are intended to promote the political ends -- including elimination of income taxes, re-establishment of the gold standard, and denial of legal rights to women, non-Christians, and non-Caucasians -- of those who spread those rumors.
  • From the standpoint of history and law, fringe on a flag has no symbolism. While each individual is free to interpret the meaning of fringe, it has no inherent or established universal symbolism.
  • While fringe is frequently used on military flags and in formal settings (parades, public meetings, offices of government officials, courts, inaugurations, dedication ceremonies, etc.), it is also widely used in the private sector. Examples of private usage of fringe on flags in the United States extend back for 200 years.
  • Fringe is and always has been a purely decorative addition -- an optional enhancement of the beauty of a flag, added on a discretionary basis when the flag is purchased. In the private sector and for non-military government uses, use of fringe is like the choice of polyester or nylon over cotton or wool for the flag itself -- simply a matter of enhancing the appearance of the flag.
  • Title Four of the "United States Code" which defines the Stars and Stripes neither prescribes nor proscribes the use of cords and tassels, heading, sleeve, fringe, and other accessories to the flag. It is universally recognized that the symbolic aspect of the flag is inherent in its colors and symbols, not in the physical characteristics of the flag or the things (like fringe) added to it when it is displayed.
  • Admiralty courts deal only with maritime contracts, collisions at sea, and similar naval questions, not with normal civil and criminal cases. There is no symbol in the United States which indicates an admiralty court. While international treaties require that ships display the national flag, maritime flags never have fringe.
  • Martial law is not mentioned in the United States constitution nor has martial law ever been proclaimed in the United States. The use or non-use of fringe on a United States flag in a court has nothing to do with the jurisdiction of the court or with martial law.
Data Summary Sheet No. 1 3/95
(c) Copyright 1995 by the Flag Research Center; All Rights Reserved.

Dave Martucci, 6 December 1996


Regarding Dave Martucci's post on this subject, military regulations DO prescribe the use of a yellow fringe for the National Flag of the U.S. In the Army, the National Flag with fringe added is termed the *National Color*. This National Color is intended to be displayed indoors or carried on parade, usually with other military colors (also fringed). The fringe, so used, is a military tradition derived from British practice.

In their official forms, the state flags of Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin all have yellow fringes. These flags were probably intended to serve as state military colors, hence the yellow fringe. The flag of North Dakota, for instance, is clearly based on the design of nineteenth-century U.S. Army infantry colors. In practice, of course, these flags are flown outdoors without fringes.

Montana's flag has yellow fringes on the top and bottom, but not on the fly end -- why, I don't know. Virginia's flag has a white fringe on the fly end only.

The state flags of North Dakota and Rhode Island: Note the squarish proportions, typical of old U.S. military colors.
Tom Gregg, 6 December 1996


Yes this is correct. Military REGULATIONS do prescribe the use of fringe on the National Color. These regulations are not, however, U.S. Law and only apply to military situations, not, for example, to the use of the flag in a court room or other non-military location.
Dave Martucci, 6 December 1996


I suppose we're now splitting hairs, but the Army regulation governing the use of the National Flag and Color (AR 840-10, Flags, Guidons, Streamers, Tabards, and Automobile and Aircraft Plates) does have the force of military law, i.e. if Army personnel violate its provisions, they are liable for prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As to the use of fringed flags by non-military government agencies, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they also have regulations governing the use of U.S., State, organizational and personal flags. It would, after all, be the bureaucratic thing to do.

On the other hand, as I can attest from personal observation, the provisions of AR 840-10 are often violated. Paragraph 2-2.c of the regulation specifically prohibits the flying of any but the National Flag over Army installations in the U.S. When I was serving on active duty during the 1980s, however, I saw the Corps of Engineers flag flown over the headquarters of the Post Engineer at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. I also saw it flown from improvised flagpoles over engineer field sites during a training deployment to Egypt in 1987. Because there is no Corps of Engineers flag authorized for outdoor display on land, the flags I saw can only have been vessel flags -- or perhaps they were privately purchased.

As to the use of fringed flags by private organizations and individuals, I readily concede the point that "to fringe or not to fringe" is a matter of personal taste, not a question of law.
Tom Gregg, 6 December 1996