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United States flag law does not specify the proportions of the flag. The proportions of 10:19, so often quoted, are the product of an executive order of the president, and are actually binding only in certain military uses. The United States
government buys and uses flags in several other proportions (2:3, 3:5, 5:8) for numerous civilian and military applications. Private citizens are free to use their own judgment.
John Ayer, 6 February 1999
The proportions of the U.S. flag are almost the same as those of British naval ensigns in the 1770's. They attained this rather strange proportion because the table of sizes, issued by Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty in 1687, laid down that flags should be made a yard long for every breadth of bewper (bunting) used in their construction. At the time bewper was 22 inches wide, so 22 x 36 gave the excellent proportions of 11:18, which are the whole numbers, near the "Golden Ratio" of 1 : 1.618. Later, bewper was woven in successively smaller widths, but the flags were still made-up in yard lengths. Consequently the proportions changed from 11:18 in 1687 to 1:2 in 1837. In the 1770's bewper was 19 inches wide, so the flags then had the proportions 19:36 or 9.5:18; very close to 10:19.
Note. The flags were actually made-up in half-breadths and half-yards, but the explanation is simpler if given in whole units and doesn't affect the proportions.
David Prothero, 30 January 1999
The source for U.S. flag proportions is actually Executive Order 10834
Joe McMillan, 16 July 1999
For those interested in other service practices, the Air Force follows the Army practice; the larger national color is used only with the ceremonial flag of the Air Force itself; national colors of other commands and units are the smaller size. Marine and Navy units use only the larger size.
The origin of the different sizes may also be of historical interest. The 36x48" dimensions were originally those of the standard (vs. color) used by mounted units--cavalry and later field artillery and mounted engineers. When the Army developed aviation units, they were also considered "mounted" [presumably accounting for the modern Air Force's use of the 36x48" flag]. When the tank came along, armored units also seemed "mounted." Then came mechanized infantry--"mounted" too. All these units carried standards rather than colors. Eventually, there came to be fewer and fewer "foot" units and the 52x66" flag was abandoned as an organizational color except for the 1st Bn 3rd Infantry (now simply referred to as the 3rd Infantry without a battalion designation--the regiment is divided directly into companies) and the U.S. Corps of Cadets. At the same time, the Army dropped the use of the term "standard," even for regiments still officially designated as cavalry.
BTW, the Marines preserve the distinction between "color" and "standard," even though both refer to the same physical flag. When it's carried on foot it's a color; when it's mounted on a vehicle, it's a standard.
Joe McMillan, 17 July 1999
Three items I found at the Navy Department Library last week may be of interest to historians of the U.S. flag:
Flags, by name, set out in the Army Regulations (AR840-10) are:
For comparison, here are dimensions used by the U.S. Army, according to Edward S. Farrow, Farrow's Military Encyclopedia (New York: Edward S. Farrow, 1885):
Before anyone asks, the national standard for cavalry regiments was not the S&S, but a blue 2 ft 3 in by 2 ft 5 in flag with the U.S. coat of arms. Cavalry regiments in 1885 carried only the one standard.
The union (canton) in all of these was 7/13 of the hoist by 1/3 of the fly.
- Garrison flag - 20 feet hoist by 36 feet fly (1:1.8)
- Post flag - 10 feet hoist by 20 feet fly (1:2)
- Storm flag - 4 feet 2 inches hoist by 8 feet fly (1:1.92)
- Infantry, Artillery, and Engineer national color: 6 feet hoist by 6 feet 6 inches fly (1:1.083333...)
- Camp color: 18 inches hoist by 20 inches fly (1:1.111...)
The earliest measurements I've found for USN ensigns are two receipt for flags purchased for the frigate USS Philadelphia and the brig USS Simon in July-August 1803. They mention ensigns of five different sizes:
- 22 x 38 feet (6.7 x 11.6 m), or 1:1.73
- 18 x 34 feet (5.5 x 10.4 m), or 1:1.89
- 17 x 32 feet (5.2 x 9.8 m), or 1:1.88
- 14 x 26 feet (4.3 x 7.9 m), or 1:1.86
- 7 x 13 feet (2.1 x 4.0 m), or 1:1.86
An inventory of colors aboard USS Constitution in 1812 also mentions an ensign measuring 14 x 26 feet.
These would suggest that something approaching 10:19 was the most frequently used, but in 1818 instructions were issued specifying the dimensions of the new 20-star, 13-stripe flag at 14 x 24 feet, or 1:1.71. So evidently there was nothing magical about the longer ratio during this period.
The first evidently systematic use of approximately 10:19 that I've found is in the 1854 "Tables of Allowances of Equipment, Outfits, Stores, &c. Falling Under the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair." This publication provided for 15 different sizes of ensign with hoists ranging from 2.5 to 18.75 feet. All but the smallest were in ratios approximating 10:19. (Approximating, because the fly lengths were specified to the foot and hoist widths to the quarter-foot, or three inches. The actual ratios ranged from 10:19 to 10:19.4, with the exception of the 2.5 x 5 foot boat ensign.)
The 10:19 ratio officially established by executive order in 1912 does seem to have been based on Navy practice, since the Army used a variety of ratios ranging from 10:17 to 10:20 and the point of the 1912 exercise was to pick a single standard. The convening of the inter-departmental group that recommended the 10:19 specification was also a Navy initiative. As I think I've reported before, the Commission on Fine Arts favored a shorter ratio but was brought around by arguments of practicality: longer flags could be trimmed as the fly end grew tattered without sacrificing too much in terms of aesthetics.
Joe McMillan, 6 December 2004
Casket flags are 5 x 9.5 ft, or 60 x 114 inches. According to an undertakers website, the typical casket is 28 inches wide and 84 inches long, so a flag this size is just right to cover the casket with 15 inches hanging down on each end and 16 on each side.
Joe McMillan, 19 September 2008