The custom of folding the United States Flag into the shape of a triangle bestows unique honor and respect upon the Flag. National Flag Foundation, the Naval Library, the Institute of Heraldry and several other sources have searched for documentation on flag folding, but detailed information regarding its origin remains unknown. NFF and Dr. Harold Langley, former curator at the Smithsonian Institution, theorize that the practice probably developed during World War I when patriotism was high and the United States Flag was universally embraced as a national symbol.
In 1923, as a consequence of this sustained patriotic fervor and the increased use of the Flag, a conference of veterans’ organizations and patriotic associations convened in Washington, DC. in 1923 to create a code of etiquette for the flag. Their intent was to establish traditions ensuring respectful treatment of the Flag by all Americans, including the many immigrants entering the country at that time.
Subsequent commentaries associated with flag etiquette began to contain references to the code and to the symbolic folding of the Flag. One such commentary, published in 1930, was written by James A. Moss in his definitive book, The Flag of the United States, its History and Symbolism.
Moss wrote: “In the Army when, each day, the Flag is lowered at the last note of retreat, the greatest care is taken that no part shall touch the ground. The Flag is carefully folded into the shape of a tri-cornered hat, reminiscent of the hats worn by the soldiers who fought the War of the Revolution and won American independence. In the folding the red and white stripes are finally wrapped into the blue, as the light of day vanishes into the darkness of the night.” (p.105)
In a letter written in 1988 to Jerald A. Merrick, Head of Reference at the Decatur Public Library, George F. Cahill, former President of National Flag Foundation, offers further clarification:
“I ascribe the fold as a salute to the tri-color itself, – the three colors, the tri-sided hat of the colonial soldiers and the colonists in general. I further use other things of three related to the nation and to heraldry inclusive of: the three branches of the national government; the three
primary documents of our land – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; and the West Point motto (duty, honor, country). When meeting with scouts, one can relate the fold to the three points of the scout oath and to the tri-points of the fleur de lis.1”
The precise details for folding the flag are as follows:
- Fold the Flag in half lengthwise.
- Repeat, fold in half lengthwise again, being careful that the blue field is on the outside.
- As one person holds the Flag by the blue field, another makes a triangular fold in the opposite end and continues to make triangular folds until the entire Flag is in a triangle.
- Tuck the loose edge of the Flag into the pocket formed by the folds so that only the blue field and white stars are visible.
There is one well-known ceremony for flag folding, often attributed to the Air Force Academy, in which each of the twelve folds of the flag is assigned a symbolic meaning. A copy of this ceremony may be obtained by calling or emailing National Flag Foundation.