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Customs Service (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-04-04 by rick wyatt
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[U.S. Customs Service flag] image by Michael P. Smuda, 22 September 1998

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Flag Description

The flag of the United States Customs Service has a field of 16 VERTICAL red and white stripes. The white canton displays the U. S. coat of arms in blue. The original design was adopted in 1799 and the canton was modified in the 20th century (previously the "arms" consisted of the eagle with outstretched wings and an arch of 13 stars across the top of the canton.) The U.S. Coast Guard places a badge in the fly of this flag.
Nick Artimovich, 23 January 1997

The Custom's service flag was designed by Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott who used 16 alternating red and white vertical stripes on the flag, with a bald eagle in the canton holding 3 arrows in his sinister claw and an olive branch in his dexter claw. On the left and right sides of the eagle are 4 stars each in an arc pattern, and above the eagle 5 stars. On the eagle is a crest representing the U.S. This flag flew as the emblem of the Custom's Service from 1782 to 1951, when replaced by the current flag pattern.
Phil Nelson, 1 October 1998

It is actually called the Revenue Ensign of the United States. It was originally authorized by Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott to be flown on Revenue Cutters of the Customs engaged in the prevention and detection of smuggling. The Revenue Cutter Service of the Customs is what later became the United States Coast Guard, hence the flag similarity.
Brian McCabe, 17 January 1999

Use and Display

The Customs flag is sometimes flown on a Coast Guard ship carrying customs officers but is more typically flown from Customs patrol/pilot boats used to transport Customs officers. It is also flown at every American customs house on land and at port of entries between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (I&NS) pennant is used much the same as the Customs flag but is less frequently seen in practice. The Coast Guard, Customs, and I&NS flags never replace the U.S. flag and are always flown in a subordinate position on a pole. In many cases the pole arrangement at a customs house is a cross-treed affair with the U.S. flag flying in the higher center position with the customs and I&NS flags on either side. Federal installations seldom, if ever, fly a local or state flag in addition to the U.S. flag. For a time locally the main port of entry between San Diego, California and Tijuana, BC, Mexico sported the federal buildings with their three or four flags. Located on the same property was a state office building housing agricultural and highway safety inspectors. Only the state's building had a California flag. It flew below the U.S. flag on a pole erected in front of its building. The City's police station a couple of kilos up the road flew only the U.S. and California flags although the City has a perfectly acceptable flag that has been in limited use for over 50 years.
Phil Abbey, 23 September 1998

Historical flags of the Customs Service

I thought I might further share with you some information I've been gathering about this subject. The images below are conjectural images may all be found at Please note all these images are from the as-yet unpublished, Early American Maritime Flags & Signals by Ray S. Morton (c) 1999

These images are reconstructions and have never been verified by either surviving examples or by any other source. They may be found on the US Coast Guard website, but when I inquired I was told that the images were all provided and not generated by them.

Further these US Treasury Department flags and ensigns were not standardized until the American Civil War; each Collector of Customs was responsible for acquiring flags and ensigns for their districts, leading to many variants in both construction and details of insignia.

We have flags in the collection which do not comply with these images; and we have reports of others. Research on this is complicated by the fragmentary nature of the US Treasury archives due to two disastrous fires at the Treasury (one British and one American!). These is no single volume reference work on this subject, and my personal visits to the USCG museum in New London, CT, and the Customs Archives in Washington, D.C. have only scratched the surface.

I would advise caution before we accept these as accurate.
Jim Ferrigan, 1 November 2008

1799 flag

[U.S. Customs Service flag] image by Pete Loeser, 30 October 2008

1815 flag

[U.S. Customs Service flag] image by Pete Loeser, 30 October 2008

1867 flag

[U.S. Customs Service flag] image by Pete Loeser, 30 October 2008