Flaggin’ It

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.

American flag showing unofficial aspect ratio
Pretty but a bit short, isn’t it?

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.

2-photo collage of Canadian flag, illustrating its aspect ratio
Now that I look, it is long, isn’t it?

 

Sizes of American Flag: Personal Use
Home Use Public Display
Pole Flag Ratio Pole Flag Ratio
15′ 3’x5′ 1:1.67 20′ 4’x6′ 1:1.5
20′ 3’x5′ 1:1.67 25′ 5’x8′ 1:1.6
25′ 4’x6′ 1:1.5 30′-35′ 6’x10′ 1:1.67
40′-45′ 6’x10- 1:1.67
8×12′- 1:1.5
50′ 8×12′- 1:1.5
10×15 1:1.5
60′-65′ 10’x15′ 1:1.5
10’x19′ 1:1.9
70′-80′ 10’x19′- 1:1.9
12’x18′ 1:1.5
90′-100′ 20’x38′- 1:1.9
30’x50′ 1:1.67

 

 

14 Comments

  1. Eric

    Flags…..I passed a school in Winnipeg and on the chain link fence were a myriad of world flags. I do not know why the flags were displayed but they may represent the nationalities of all the students in the school. The last flag was the Rainbow Pride flag.

    I was a bit taken aback, but on further consideration I realized that it was the only flag which was truly international flown by almost every country.

  2. Jim Taylor

    Another thing that has changed is the veneration given flags. (I should say that I don’t know how flags are treated in the U.S. Maybe they still treat them like sacred objects.) When I was young, in Scouts and similar organizations, we did not dare let the flag touch the ground. When we took a flag down at the end of a camp, a meeting, a special event, there was a ritual about lowering it, holding it up, folding it just so, and putting it away. When you carried a flag in a parade, you held it high even though the end of the pole was boring a hole into your stomach. And it was considered an honour to be chosen to carry or to fold the flag.
    Today, I see flags being casually rolled up, bundled, stuffed into a box, until the next time. Even in my more-or-less conservative Rotary club, I see flags dragging on the floor before they’re placed into their stands.

    JIm T

    1. Barbara Carlson

      Jim — Re US flags — I don’t know about other times, but six years ago at my father’s burial plot. Has he was WWII veteran, there were two (2!) young uniformed soldiers in silent attendance — very smartly turned out — who choreographed folding the flag that had been draped over his coffin before lowering it into the ground.

      There were many, many moves and at the completion, it was a perfectly tucked-in, thick, flag triangle. The soldier holding the flag knelt (on one knee) before my sister and I (my mother had died 8 months before) and presented it to us, saluted and then marched off in unison. Very moving.

      But I’m sure I’ve seen the U.S. flag design made into underwear…

      1. Isabel Gibson

        Barbara – That’s the sort of thing that makes me think we’ve gone too far in driving out ritual. It speaks to something deep in us, I think, and can help us through difficult times.

    2. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – I think that flags are handled carefully in military circles, but I don’t have any occasion to see them outside that. Well, except for them moving into and out of a box in my garage, round about this time of year. It wouldn’t be surprising if we’ve gotten more casual in their handling – we’re more casual in just about everything else.

  3. Barbara Carlson

    As for the UK being different, they do not print “United Kingdom” on their stamps if it was the Queen’s profile — or used not to.

    When David Hockey saw the Queen Elizabeth II — in profile across the room — at some banquet he attended, he said to his companion, “That reminds me, I need to buy stamps.”

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