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American Flag Etiquette: 10 Mistakes You Didn’t Realize You Were Making

We’ve checked with some patriotic organizations about how best to display Old Glory based on the U.S. Flag Code. These are not laws—no one’s going to jail for disregarding them. But should you wish to fly the Colors, here are a few tips.

flag paradegary718/shutterstock

You carry the flag horizontally during a parade

It’s tempting to mimic the pregame ceremonies at football games and carry the giant flags horizontally. But the flag etiquette code is pretty clear on this. The flag should be held “always aloft and free.” Don’t miss these 20 mind-blowing facts about the American flag.

girl in a T-shirt with the American flag on a walk in the cityKseniia Perminova/Shutterstock

You wear the flag as a shirt or swimsuit

The flag’s a flag, it’s not clothing. So put something else on, says the American Legion and ushistory.org. But here’s where they diverge. You know those Old Navy T-Shirts? Ushistory.org puts that in the same category with wearing the flag, whereas the American Legion told us that the design is not the actual flag, only a “representation,” and, therefore, they have no problem with that.

Several red white and blue napkins in the same color as the American flag.BW Folsom/Shutterstock

You buy American Flag napkins for your Fourth of July Picnic

It’s Independence Day and you’re celebrating with a big picnic complete with hamburgers, hot dogs, and American flag napkins. You might consider some other sort of napkin. As with athletic uniforms, the code is very particular when it comes to wiping mustard off your mouth with the flag: “[The flag] should not be … printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”

United states flag flying at half staffSnaprender/Shutterstock

You fly the flag at half-staff for a fallen friend

A soldier or veteran you know has died. You’d like to honor them by flying the flag at half-staff. But figure out another way to honor your friend. According to the flag etiquette code, only the president or your state governor can order the U.S. flag lowered to half-staff. Next, learn these White House etiquette rules.

Wide angle photo of a tattered American flag blowing in the wind against a beautiful cloudscapeCURAphotography/Shutterstock

You burn a dirtied flag

Your flag has touched the ground and you’ve been told it should now be destroyed. Don’t. While you should avoid letting the flag touch the ground, there’s no need to destroy it, says ushistory.org. Instead, “clean the flag by hand with a mild soap solution and dry it well.” Check out these 25 American flag photos guaranteed to make you feel patriotic.

US flag patch on black background, close upFlotsam/Shutterstock

You sew an American flag patch onto your sports uniform

There’s nothing more American than baseball. And to prove it, you’ve sewn an American flag patch onto your baseball uniform. Per flag etiquette, consider removing it. The flag code actually references this: “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.”

American flag on the blue skyphloxii/Shutterstock

You replace the stars with another image

For the same reason as the previous slide, don’t replace the stars with anything else: an image of a favorite candidate, patriotic words, etc. Here are 6 moments when the American flag was larger than life.

Flags in a StormL.A. Faille/Shutterstock

You’ve left your flag flying, even in a rainstorm

Unless you have an all-weather flag, it should never be displayed in inclement weather lest it gets ruined.

Detail of a partial folded American flag using as backgroundAndreas Berheide/Shutterstock

You ask a celebrity to sign your flag

It may be tempting to ask a governor, mayor, or even a famous actor to autograph your flag. But this is a big no-no in flag etiquette. The flag code stipulates: “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”

An American flag flowing in the wind.flysnowfly/Shutterstock

You display another flag and the American flag on the same staff

It’s OK to fly different national flags in addition to, or instead of, the American flag. According to the flag code, however, the American flag must fly from a separate staff. The code also references this: “No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America.” Think you could match U.S. states with their flag? This flag quiz will tell you.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.