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Sizes/Proportions of U.S. flags

Last modified: 2015-03-28 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | sizes of flags |
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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:

  1. An 1818 circular from the Board of Naval Commissioners set the dimensions of the national ensign for the Navy at 14:24, which is a little longer than 10:17.
  2. The 1854 Navy "Tables of Allowances of Equipment, Outfits, Stores, &c." was the first source I have found that set approximately the modern proportions. It prescribes 15 different sizes of ensign, with all the hoists stated to quarter foot (i.e., 3 inch) measurements and all the flies in an even number of whole feet. Rounding off, they all come out to about 10:19 except the smallest boat flag, which measured 2.5 by 5 feet. The length of the union (canton) is stated as 40% of the fly, which on a 10:19 flag works out to 76% of the hoist--exactly the modern specification.
  3. The 1862 "Allowances Established for Vessels of the United States Navy" explicitly state that "the whole depth of the ensign is to be ten-nineteenths of its whole length," the earliest prescription I've seen of the current 10:19 specification. 14 sizes of ensigns are prescribed by the allowances, the largest being 19 x 36 feet with a 14.4 foot union.
My recollection is that Army regulations of the late 19th century provided for a 10:18 proportion rather than 10:19, which was probably the impetus for the 1912 Executive Order standardizing on the Navy sizes.
Joe McMillan, 5 March 2000

Flags, by name, set out in the Army Regulations (AR840-10) are:

  • Garrison flag is 20 ft by 38 feet, 1:1.9. This is bigger than the post flag, 10 ft by 19 ft. This flag also fits the 1:1.9 ratio. For holidays and special occasions; only displayed at installations with tall enough flagpoles. The Air Force does not fly the garrison flag.
  • Post flag: 8 feet 11 3/8 inches x 17 feet - Everyday flag displayed at military installations. In the Marine Corps, it is 10 x 19 feet. The Air Force uses the same size as the Army but calls it a base flag.
  • Field flag, 6 foot 8 inch hoist by 12 foot fly, -- "may be displayed from a flag pole only when distinguished visitors are present and only with the positional field flag".
  • Storm Flag, which measures 5 feet hoist by 9 feet six inch fly. This flag is flown in "inclement weather".
  • Interment flag, which has the same measurement as the Storm flag--"authorized for deceased military personnel or deceased veterans.
  • Boat flag 3 foot hoist by 4 foot fly--"displayed only with positional boat flag colors and general officer colors".
  • Ensign--2 foot 4 7/16 inch hoist by 4 foot six inch fly, "displayed on vessels when required to indicate nationality".
  • Grave decoration flag--7 inch hoist by 11 inch fly
  • Automobile flags of two sizes: a) 12 inch hoist by 18 inch fly; and b) 18 inch hoist by 26 inch fly.
Devereaux Cannon, 28 September 2001

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):

  • 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 union (canton) in all of these was 7/13 of the hoist by 1/3 of the fly.
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.
Joe McMillan, 9 March 2000

Historical Sizes

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

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

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