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Fringe on Flags (U.S.)

Last modified: 2018-12-31 by rick wyatt
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[U.S. fringed flag] image by Rick Wyatt, 26 March 1998

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Recently, I have received several inquiries privately regarding the symbolism of the fringe displayed on indoor U.S. Flags, especially in courtrooms. I received the following data sheet from the Flag Research Center regarding this question and I quote it here in its entirety:


For many years rumors have been spread through the United States concerning the origin and meaning of the gold fringe which frequently decorates the Stars and Stripes. It has been claimed that such fringe is without proper authorization; that it is symbolic of the end of the gold standard as the basis for United States currency; or that it indicates the substitution of admiralty courts and martial law for common law courts and procedures, as part of a conspiracy supposedly instigated by Communists, Jews, Masons, liberals, feminists, homosexuals, or other "un-American" groups.

The Flag Research Center has not conducted a thorough investigation of all the claims being made about fringe, many of which are spread by radio talk programs, cassette tapes, lectures and other non-written forms. Nevertheless its unique resources allow the Center to state the following with certainty:
  • Available evidence seems to suggest that the claims made about fringe on the United States flag are intended to promote the political ends -- including elimination of income taxes, re-establishment of the gold standard, and denial of legal rights to women, non-Christians, and non-Caucasians -- of those who spread those rumors.
  • From the standpoint of history and law, fringe on a flag has no symbolism. While each individual is free to interpret the meaning of fringe, it has no inherent or established universal symbolism.
  • While fringe is frequently used on military flags and in formal settings (parades, public meetings, offices of government officials, courts, inaugurations, dedication ceremonies, etc.), it is also widely used in the private sector. Examples of private usage of fringe on flags in the United States extend back for 200 years.
  • Fringe is and always has been a purely decorative addition -- an optional enhancement of the beauty of a flag, added on a discretionary basis when the flag is purchased. In the private sector and for non-military government uses, use of fringe is like the choice of polyester or nylon over cotton or wool for the flag itself -- simply a matter of enhancing the appearance of the flag.
  • Title Four of the "United States Code" which defines the Stars and Stripes neither prescribes nor proscribes the use of cords and tassels, heading, sleeve, fringe, and other accessories to the flag. It is universally recognized that the symbolic aspect of the flag is inherent in its colors and symbols, not in the physical characteristics of the flag or the things (like fringe) added to it when it is displayed.
  • Admiralty courts deal only with maritime contracts, collisions at sea, and similar naval questions, not with normal civil and criminal cases. There is no symbol in the United States which indicates an admiralty court. While international treaties require that ships display the national flag, maritime flags never have fringe.
  • Martial law is not mentioned in the United States constitution nor has martial law ever been proclaimed in the United States. The use or non-use of fringe on a United States flag in a court has nothing to do with the jurisdiction of the court or with martial law.
Data Summary Sheet No. 1 3/95
(c) Copyright 1995 by the Flag Research Center; All Rights Reserved.
Dave Martucci, 6 December 1996

Regarding Dave Martucci's post on this subject, military regulations DO prescribe the use of a yellow fringe for the National Flag of the U.S. In the Army, the National Flag with fringe added is termed the *National Color*. This National Color is intended to be displayed indoors or carried on parade, usually with other military colors (also fringed). The fringe, so used, is a military tradition derived from British practice.

In their official forms, the state flags of Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin all have yellow fringes. These flags were probably intended to serve as state military colors, hence the yellow fringe. The flag of North Dakota, for instance, is clearly based on the design of nineteenth-century U.S. Army infantry colors. In practice, of course, these flags are flown outdoors without fringes.

Montana's flag has yellow fringes on the top and bottom, but not on the fly end -- why, I don't know. Virginia's flag has a white fringe on the fly end only.

The state flags of North Dakota and Rhode Island: Note the squarish proportions, typical of old U.S. military colors.
Tom Gregg, 6 December 1996

Yes this is correct. Military REGULATIONS do prescribe the use of fringe on the National Color. These regulations are not, however, U.S. Law and only apply to military situations, not, for example, to the use of the flag in a court room or other non-military location.
Dave Martucci, 6 December 1996

I suppose we're now splitting hairs, but the Army regulation governing the use of the National Flag and Color (AR 840-10, Flags, Guidons, Streamers, Tabards, and Automobile and Aircraft Plates) does have the force of military law, i.e. if Army personnel violate its provisions, they are liable for prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As to the use of fringed flags by non-military government agencies, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they also have regulations governing the use of U.S., State, organizational and personal flags. It would, after all, be the bureaucratic thing to do.

On the other hand, as I can attest from personal observation, the provisions of AR 840-10 are often violated. Paragraph 2-2.c of the regulation specifically prohibits the flying of any but the National Flag over Army installations in the U.S. When I was serving on active duty during the 1980s, however, I saw the Corps of Engineers flag flown over the headquarters of the Post Engineer at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. I also saw it flown from improvised flagpoles over engineer field sites during a training deployment to Egypt in 1987. Because there is no Corps of Engineers flag authorized for outdoor display on land, the flags I saw can only have been vessel flags -- or perhaps they were privately purchased.

As to the use of fringed flags by private organizations and individuals, I readily concede the point that "to fringe or not to fringe" is a matter of personal taste, not a question of law.
Tom Gregg, 6 December 1996

It seems that the "issue" has been around for some time, and that it had elements of inter-service (Army vs. Navy) rivalry, and even a whiff of racism. In an article called "The American Colors" written by Rear Admiral Colby M. Chester, US Navy, and published in US Naval Institute Proceedings in February 1922, most of the article is the usual muddle of mythology and nonsense about the early history of the US flag. (His discussion of the Fort McHenry flag, in particular, deserves some kind of award for creative fiction). However, the last 6 pages are an extended rant about yellow fringes on US flags. Some excerpts:

"Shall we now 'play a yellow trick' on future generations and show by our actions that the flag represents a yellow-streaked race?". . .
"During the occupation of Northern Mexico, by the United States Army, in 1913, it became necessary for the colors to be kept planted, at the head of the column, continuously. The strong prairie wind that prevailed in that high altitude, acting against the yellow fringe girdling the flags, soon wracked them to pieces and the fringe had to be removed or the colors house altogether. Do you wish to strike your colors because it rains?". . .
"If it be rule of action that the Secretary of War may add another stripe to the flag that Congress has declared shall represent the people of the United States . . . why should not any civic society order a green fringe to be placed on the Star-Spangled Banner, to represent their special interests, or the I.W.W. give it a fiery red color, or the pacifists bind it around with a boa of white feathers?"

[PA Note: The Secretary of War was the source of Army Regulations specifying the use of the fringe on Army flags. Chester later comments that "To naval officers . . . any faulty appearance of the national colors signifies . . . an ill-conditioned man-of-war not tolerated in any well disciplined navy in the world."]
. . .
"And now let the author ask . . . if it is the intention of the American people to add another color to the red, white and blue, under whose folds millions have fought, bled and died to raise the country to the rank of the First World Power . . . And if so, is that color to be a 'yellow streak,' which, by common consent, has come to stand for the lowest and meanest stratum in the human race? Even a yellow dog made so by nature, is a target for tin pans and the abuse of children and you resent a charge of playing a 'yellow trick.' But leaving aside all sentiment regarding the color, do you want to superimpose another tint than the red and blue on the basic white set as a standard for liberty by Washington?"
. . .
". . . the appended yellow fringe . . . draws the flag down to be the plaything of faddists. You cannot paint the lily-of-the-valley, nor can you beautify the rose of Sharon. And no more can you grace the American Flag with furbelows."
Peter Ansoff, 21 December 2005

Concerning the statement "Martial law is not mentioned in the United States constitution nor has martial law ever been proclaimed in the United States." I was under the impression that Lincoln proclaimed martial law on July 5, 1864 with Proclamation 113. (
Roger Grandy, 19 March 2016

Martial law is an interesting subject in the United States. Mr. Grandy is correct that the United States Constitution does not specifically mention martial law by name. Instead, in Article I Section 9, the Constitution states that "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." This wording has been interpreted by the US Supreme Court and the US judicial system in general to equate the suspension of habeas corpus with the implementation of martial law. Throughout American history, "martial law" has been declared numerous times on local levels by state governors, city mayors, and the like. In nearly every case, however, the court system continued to operate under American civil law, meaning that habeas corpus had not been suspended and that the broad definition of "martial law" had not been met. Instead, in almost every instance, the term "martial law" was intended to indicate that troops o the US Army would be tasked with enforcing the laws rather than duly appointed or elected law enforcement agencies and officials.

During the US Civil War, President Lincoln did issue multiple Presidential proclamations that did suspend the writ of habeas corpus, first in the areas of rebellion occupied by the US Army (i.e. recaptured from the Confederacy), then throughout the entire United States on 27 April 1861. In September 1863, President Lincoln issued another proclamation, with the consent of the Congress, that renewed the suspension of habeas corpus throughout the entirety of the United States. In the 1866 US Supreme Court case of Ex parte Lambdin P. Milligan, however, the Court ruled that President Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and therefore the implementation of true martial law was unconstitutional since the civil court system was still in operation throughout those parts of the United States NOT previously part of the Confederacy and therefore occupied by the US Army. Martial law was upheld as legal and constitutional in those parts of the country that had been in rebellion and where the US Army was operating as the governing authority in lieu of a re-established and reconstructed civil authority.

So, the answer to Mr. Grandy's question appears to be both yes and no. Yes, President Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus during the US Civil War, thereby technically implementing martial law throughout the United States. However, the 1866 Supreme Court ruling that the proclamation was unconstitutional essentially nullifies the proclamations, putting us back to the point that martial law has never constitutionally been declared throughout the country, including areas not in rebellion or facing invasion.
Randy Young, 19 March 2016