Half Staff History

Dec 13th, 2016

Half staff is the name given to the tradition of lowering flags to show mourning or distress. When the flag is lowered on a ship, it is referred to as half mast.


Half staff flag


The practice of flying flags at half staff dates back to the early 1600s. An expedition by James Hall, an Englishman and captain of the Hearts Ease, sailed to Greenland in search of silver. Some Inuit citizens of the area were angry that four Inuit’s were taken prisoner by a Scottish explorer seven years prior to Hall’s arrival, struck him with a spear and killed him. The ship's flag was lowered to signal a death and as a salute to the deceased.


According to some legends, the British lowered the flag to half mast to make room above it for the “invisible flag of death”. The flag is lowered one flag width.


In the United States, the earliest reference to half staff, or half mast, occurred in 1799. All Navy vessels were ordered by the Navy Department to fly the American flag at half mast when George Washington died. Today, flying the U.S. flag at half staff means mourning and respect.


Lowering the American flag to half staff


To show respect for the American flag, you should briskly hoist your flat to finial (top of your flagpole) for an instant, and then lower the flag to the middle of the flagpole. When taking the flag down at the end of the day, you should also hoist the flag all the way to the top of the flagpole for an instant, and then lower it to the point that you can take it down without the flag touching the ground.


Many flags attached to homes, buildings, and other objects that are mounted on a fixed pole that cannot be lowered. The proper procedure in those cases, according to the American Legion, is to attach a black streamer to the top of the flag. The streamer proportions should be the length of the flag and the width of a stripe on the flag.


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