You want the long version or the short version? Oh, what the heck. It’s a long weekend, isn’t it? Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, and all that, no? Settle in.
This started, as so many things do, with me saying, “Huh? What’s with that?” In this case, the “that” was a big honkin’ American flag atop a car dealership adjacent to one of the many freeways gracing metro Phoenix. But the flag wasn’t just big: That made sense given the flagpole’s height. I mean, if you want to attract buyers from outer space or even from out-of-state, of course the pole has to be high and the flag has to be big. No, it was the proportions that bothered me: Old Glory was Too Long. Wasn’t it?
Well, I wasn’t sure. Knowing that Americans take their flag seriously I figured the proportions must be fixed by law, whence it followed that I must be seein’ things.
Over the next few years, however, I continued to see things. Most flags didn’t particularly catch my eye, but the ones on super-tall flagpoles still looked Too Long. They even rippled oddly in the breeze. I did some perfunctory internet searches, to no avail. Finally, I did what usually works: I told someone with better search skills than mine.
And bingo! There was, of course, a site for that: US History.org. And I was half right: although the size varies with the use, the shape of the official American flag is fixed by Executive Order at 1:1.9, or almost twice as long as it is high. But personal flags — whether used at home or in public-but-unofficial displays — and all the sizes from hand-wavers to car-dealership-markers — ah, that’s a different story.
Now, I don’t do much calculatin’ in my head, summertime or wintertime, so to see what was going on I had to take the measurements and put them in a spreadsheet that would do the calculations for me. I’ve copied the resulting table at the bottom of this post so you can see it for your own self. But here’s the point. Unofficial American flags vary not just in size but also in shape: from 1:1.5 (or 2:3), to 1:1.6, to 1:1.67 (or 3:5), to the same shape as the official flag (1:1.9).
What this means is that the apparently Too Long flags I see above car dealerships are likely using the official proportions. Almost all the other American flags I see are, I think, using shapes approved for unofficial-but-public-display purposes and are, proportionally, significantly shorter than the official standard.
Well. I imagine you now have the same question I did. What about our Canadian flag?
I’m glad you asked. It turns out that there’s a name for height/length: It’s called the aspect ratio. And it further turns out that there are two aspect ratios in common use within the world’s 195 sovereign states:
- 2:3 (or 1:1.5), used by 89 states or 45% of the 195
- 1:2, used by 54 states or 27% of the 195
In case you’re wondering what the other 28% do, well, that varies. Norway, Papua New Guinea, and Democratic Republic of the Congo have short flags (about 1:1.3, or 3:4); as we’ve already seen, the USA uses 1:1.9; Qatar has the longest one (1:2.5, or 2:5); Cape Verde doesn’t care, wild and crazy guys that they are; and Iran has two official but contradictory sets of instructions: one sets the aspect ratio at exactly 1:1.75, the other constructs the flag geometrically, resulting in an irrational aspect ratio, “irrational” here referring not to their geopolitics but to the fact that the number can’t be expressed as a simple fraction. Three states use non-rectangular flags: Nepal (two triangles atop each other like a stacked pennant), and Switzerland and Vatican City (square, and yes, I know that squares are special kinds of rectangles but who knew this topic would be such a mathematical tour de force?).
Countries tend to adopt the aspect ratio of their mother country’s flag, if they had a mother. The United Kingdom uses 1:2, and so we do too and that’s all there is to that. Well, there is the niggling problem that I found no explanation for why the UK flag uses a different aspect ratio from the flags of three of its constituent parts — England, Scotland, and Wales — maybe because I didn’t look. I think it’s good to leave some mystery in life, don’t you?
There’s just one more thing. I always put up Canadian flags for Canada Day, so this year I checked to see whether they adhered to the 1:2 standard. The answer? It varies. The flags designed to be flown from a flagpole, however modest, are indeed 1:2. The flags on a stick, designed to be waved at our head-of-state going by in a motorcade or stuck into a garden display if that’s more your thing (the flag being so stuck, not the head-of-state, that would be rude), are about 1:1.5. Or 2:3 if you prefer.
This Canada Day, enjoy whatever flags you have near you, of whatever shape.
|Home Use||Public Display|