Flag at Half Staff

Alright, I’m officially confused.
Back when I was in Boy Scouts, we were told that to fly the flag at “half staff” meant to fly it one flag’s height from the top of the flagpole. This seemed very peculiar, since the flag was just one flag height below the top, and this was far from half the staff in height. There were pictures that showed the flag that distance dowbn from the top, with a ghostly dotted-outline flag up at the top above it. This site seems to show such a “half staff” flag:


But nowadays I notice that “half staff” seems to literally nmean at half the height of the flagstaff, and that even in DC this is the case. Most webnsites use this definition, including Wikipedia.

When did this change? I assumed that all the flags I saw literally at half the staff were the work of people who only knew of the position from the name, and who naively assumed that it meant half the staff. But the folks in Washington are sticklers for accuracy and consistency in ceremonial display, and I can’t imagine them getting it wrong.

So I can only assume that somewhere along the line it changed, and I never got the memo. Does anyone know about this?

(Then there’s the argument about “half staff” vs. “half mast”. The former is judged more correct, although apparently the latter is an older term. I’ve heard both used. Moreover I’ve heard them both used for both the “one flag from the top” position and the literal half-flagpole-height position.)

No idea on the position of the flag. I’ve never heard the one flag height below the top thing you were told in Boy Scouts. Perhaps someone has an old Boy Scout Handbook and can look this up?

As for half-staff vs half-mast, I understood that flags flown aboard a ship or on a naval base are flown on masts, and that we fly flags on staffs on dry land.

Understood “half-staff” from context but I’ve never heard it - even the BBC say “half-mast” when referring to flagpoles which aren’t on boats. Language simplifies ?

Interesting. I’ve always understood "half staff " vs “half mast” to be US and Commonwealth English respectively, but to mean the exact same thing.

Understood “half-staff” from context but I’ve never heard it - even the BBC say “half-mast” when referring to flags flying from flagpoles which aren’t on boats. Language simplifies ?

oops not sure how I double posted - sorry.

I’ve looked in my old:
**Boy Scout Handbook ** 1964 Printing
It says

Tha is all I find right off and there is no picture/drawing to gain further perspective.

Not only was I a Boy Scout back in the early 60s, but I was also responsible for raising and lowering the flag at our school. Half-mast always meant half-mast to me. I don’t remember any instructions for one flag length.

Admittedly, my memory for such things is pretty bad but I think this would stand out since someone would have had to drill it into my head.

Some Googling tells me that the flag code was adopted in 1923 and enacted into law in 1942. I can’t find any evidence of a change in the provisions for the time period in question.

There is one possible explanation I can think of. When flying more than one flag on a staff, the U.S. flag goes on top and the other flag goes essentially a flag length below. But that’s just a stab in the dark.

Thinking back I seem to recall an instance where the length of the flag was greater than half of the staff and would therefore result in the flag touching the groung if flown at true half-staff. In such cases, the method you describe is considered an acceptable method. I have no cite for this, just IMHO.

I’ve searched the internet for anything about this, but can’t turn up anything. The current U.S. Code on displayinmg the flag unequivocally states that “half staff” is halfway between top and bottom :


But how long that has been in effect I dfon’t know. The top of the page gives a “release date” of last month (although I can’t imagine they made any substantial changes that recently)
The only significant difference I found was a boating sdite that defined “half staff” as 3/4 of the way up. But that’s definitely a minority.
Nevertheless, my memory is clear on this issue – I recall the illustrations that showed “half staff” as the height the flag would be at if there was another flag just above it. Not only that, but this is the way we always displayed a “half staff” flag – definitely not halfway up the pole. And it had always struck me as a bizarre way to define “half staff”. When I asked about this, no one has any answers. “Half staff” was just the term they’d always used.
The only explanation I can see is that I must’ve wandered in from a parallel universe.

Look at the illustration on this site:


Even though elsewhere on the site it defines “half staff” as halfway between top and bottom, the illustration clearly depicts the flag being one flag height below the top position. And if you tell me that the flag in the illustration is halfway between top and bottom, then I say that the illustration is clearly clipped and not showing the entire pole. Otherwise that’s a damned short pole with a huge flag on it.

Cal, I think you are reading way too much into a 4 color demonstration .GIF. I think it’s simply meant to illustrate that the flag is halfway up, not to give a realistic representation of a pole with a properly scaled flag.

I do recall the “one flag length from the top” as being the definition of “half-staff” in references when I was a boy (though I learned it as “half-mast” and I’m not from the UK). But in practice, most people flew it halfway up the staff.

I have usually thought that “leaving space for one flag above it” as half mast (in, perhaps, a more specifically U.K. sense), with the “actually halfway down the flagpole” version being a U.S.A. version, but a quick Google for evidence hasn’t helped me yet. :frowning:

Not very GQ of me - sorry. :frowning:

The page here claims that a typical pole on the mast of a ship used for flying a flag is about three flag-widths tall; therefore “half mast” on a nautical mast is the same as one flag width down. Moreover, it’s one flag width down because it makes room for the invisible “flag of death” flying above. However, the same site also says that this shouldn’t translate to taller land-based flag poles.

my boy scout handbook, copyright 1988, says “…lower to half-staff, one half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff”

I just checked gthe reference materials in the library here.

1.) Encyclopedia Americana from 1983, vol. 11, p. 350 unequivocally shows a picture of a flag one flag height from the top of the pole. The flagpole itself in the illustration is truncated right beneath the flag, so the “reading too much into the illustration” argument doesn’t hold – the illustrator would be showing the flag practically on the ground. Curiously, the text citing the Flag Code agrees with what I have above – it says that “half staff” means a flag halfway between top and bottom positions on the pole, completely at odds with the illustration.

2.) Webster’s Dictionary from 1959. “Half Staff” directs you to “Half Mast”, where you find the following definition – “A point some distance, not necessarily halfway down, below the top of a mast or staff or peak of a gaff; as, a flag at half mast (a token of mourning, or, sometimes, of distress).” The first set of italics is mine, the second as in the text.

My questions in all this were:

1.) Why would someone define “half mast” or “half staff” as something that it clearly was not, and

2.) When did the accepted definition change?

I suspect that the “one flag height from the top” definition was adopted for greater visibility of the flag itself, and was used in WWII and into the fifties. My scoyutmasters were of WWII vintage, and would’ve used it that way, and so were the books we used. Perhaps sometime around 1960 the definition changed, but the older usage continued until the up-and-coming generation, not familiar with the older use, and taking things logically, readily took to the newer definition. That would square my experience with what I’m seeing. I’ll have to see if anything I have at home corroborates this.

This site has quite a discussion on the topic,

from which I excerpt this:

I don’t know for the american flag, but I noticed while searching around that in Canada :

-The flag must indeed be flown at one flag’s height form the top

-The mast is ideally 4 times the height of the flag. IOW, flying it at one flag’s height from the top would ideally result in the base of the flag being at half the mast’s height.

So, maybe the two definitions aren’t contradictory, providing the same is true in the US.

But this site seems to insist that in Canada the flag should be halfway down the mast:


It’s a complicated mess. Current US and Canadian codes seem to indicate 1/2 mast height for the flag location, but older practices seem to allow for a very different location.