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Customs Service (U.S.)

Last modified: 2019-08-02 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | customs |
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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

"Responding to the urgent need for revenue following the American Revolutionary War, the First United States Congress passed and President George Washington signed the Tariff Act of July 4, 1789, which authorized the collection of duties on imported goods. Four weeks later, on July 31, the fifth act of Congress established the United States Customs Service and its ports of entry. On August. 1, 1799, the (Customs) ensign was formally adopted, making it the first official flag of a U.S. government agency, and the customs ensign originally was designed to mark those American ships that helped collect the bulk of the young nation's revenue.

A law, the Customs Administration Act, was passed in the spring of 1799 requiring that "revenue cutters", as they were known, should have a banner of their own. The need for the banner was simple: the cutters needed a visible sign of their authority to stop and inspect ships. Indeed, the cutters by law were given permission to fire on other ships that did not heed their calls to stop upon flying the new banner.

Why 16 stripes and not 13? At the time, Congress initially had adopted a practice of adding both a new star and a new stripe with the addition of new states, and it had changed the national flag to 15 stars and 15 stripes in 1794. Since that time, Tennessee had joined the Union as the 16th state, so Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott included a 16th stripe.

Why were the stripes vertical? It is believed that Wolcott turned the stripes to more readily differentiate the customs ensign from the national flag.

Customs officials around the country hired local flag-makers to make the ensigns, a process in place until the 1860s, when the Treasury Department began issuing standardized versions to customs houses nationwide.

The ensign was only designed to be flown on the revenue cutters, but shortly after its adoption, it also flew above many customs houses around the country - a tradition formalized in 1874 by Treasury Secretary William Richardson, who ordered the flag be displayed next to the U.S. flag at customs locations during business hours.

The flag flew with few changes until 1915, when the newly-formed U.S. Coast Guard, which was born from the revenue cutters, adopted the ensign for its use by adding an emblem in the flag's field, though the flag used by customs vessels and on land at customs facilities was unchanged.

Since its first hoisting, the flag's most significant change occurred in 1951, when government experts realized that the flag had a glaring error. It was supposed to contain the Arms of the United States, a design that can be seen on the back of a $1 bill as part of the Great Seal. The emblem used in the original ensign's union was essentially a very rough approximation of the arms' design, with the most obvious error being that 13 stars were arranged in a semicircle around and above the eagle, as opposed to the "constellation" design actually called for in the arms. That change brought about the customs flag that now flies at CBP headquarters, ports of entry and other facilities nationwide. The flag even continues in its role as an ensign, flying on some of CBP's marine vessels.

The U.S. Customs Service was the parent or forerunner to many other agencies: in the early days, Customs officers administered military pensions (Department of Veterans Affairs); collected import and export statistics (Bureau of Census); and, supervised revenue cutters (U.S. Coast Guard). Customs also collected hospital dues to help sick and disabled seamen (Public Health Service); and, established standard weights and measures (National Bureau of Standards).

With the passage of the Homeland Security Act enacted on November 25, 2002, the U.S. Customs Service passed from under jurisdiction of the Treasury Department to the Department of Homeland Security. On March 1, 2003, parts of the U.S. Customs Service combined with the Inspections Program of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Plant Protection and Quarantine from USDA, and the Border Patrol of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to form U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Federal Protective Service, along with the investigative arms of the U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, combined to form U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The United States Customs Service is the primary border interdiction agency, ensures that all imports and exports comply with U.S. laws and regulations and collects and protects the revenue, guards against smuggling, as well as many other objectives".

For additional information go to Customs (official website):

Esteban Rivera, 11 February 2019

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